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Gender Disparity in Science: Challenges and Paths to Equity

  • 19 Sep 2023
  • 10 min read

This editorial is based on Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize: Hegemony of old boys’ club in science which was published in Indian Express on 18/09/2023. It talks about the gender disparity in the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, an Indian science award, and highlights the lack of recognition for women scientists.

For Prelims: Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)

For Mains: Gender Disparity, Causes of the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Ways to Ensure Women’s Participation in Science

Recently, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced the list of awardees for the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for 2022. Notably, there were no female scientists chosen for the SSB Awards 2022.

The prize is renowned for its substantial impact on the scientific career of its recipients and the prestige it brings to their institutions. However, it has gained criticism for its persistent lack of recognition of women scientists. Despite its significance in the scientific community, the prize has repeatedly failed to acknowledge and honor the contributions of female scientists.

This gender disparity in the prize's history highlights the ongoing challenges and biases faced by women in science and underscores the need for greater efforts to promote gender equality and diversity in scientific recognition.

What is Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize?

  • Institution and History: The prize was established in 1958 by the CSIR, indicating its long-standing history in recognizing scientific excellence.
  • Annual Awards: The prize is awarded annually to a select group of scientists, under the age of 45 years, emphasizing the recognition of young and promising talent in the field of science.
  • Multiple Domains: The prizes are distributed across seven distinct domains of science, which include physical, chemical, biological, medical, engineering, mathematics, and atmospheric sciences.

What is the Criticism Against SSB Awards?

  • Gender Disparity: The SSB Prize has a noticeable gender disparity issue, with the latest set of winners in both 2021 and 2022 consisting exclusively of male scientists. This underscores the persistent underrepresentation of women for this award.
    • The fact that women constitute only around 14% of India's working scientists underscores a significant gender disparity in the field of science.
  • Lack of Female Awardees: Over the past two years, despite recognizing numerous scientists for their outstanding contributions, the CSIR has failed to identify a single woman scientist deemed to have made a sufficiently noteworthy impact in the field of science and technology.
  • Inclusivity in the Field: Only 19 out of nearly 600 SSB prizes have been awarded to women scientists which indicates a long-standing historical gender imbalance in the award's history.
    • This persistent lack of recognition for women's contributions in science raises questions about inclusivity and gender equality in the scientific community.
  • Lack of Transparency: The composition of the Advisory Committee responsible for selecting the SSB Award winners has traditionally been covered in secrecy, making it immune to public accountability and scrutiny.
    • This lack of transparency can further perpetuate biases and hinder efforts to address gender disparities.
  • Nominations by Predominantly Male Figures: To be considered for the award, a scientist must be nominated by individuals in influential positions, including vice-chancellors, directors, academy presidents, deans, CSIR governing body members, and former winners.
    • The observation here is that these nominators are predominantly men, which may result in a bias against nominating their female colleagues.

What is the Scenario of Other Awards Regarding Women’s Participation?

  • Nobel Prize: The Nobel Prizes, which are globally renowned and prestigious, also suffer from a significant gender disparity.
    • Out of the 343 science prizes awarded, only 24 have been given to women, indicating a notable underrepresentation of female laureates.
  • Encouraging Progress: Despite the historical gender disparity in Nobel Prizes, there is a somewhat encouraging trend where 31 out of the 61 prizes awarded to women in all categories have been granted since the year 2000.
    • This suggests a positive shift towards greater recognition of women's achievements, though still with room for improvement.
  • Contrast with Bhatnagar Awards: In contrast to the Nobel Prizes, the SSB prizes do not appear to demonstrate similar signs of progress in recognizing women scientists.
    • The lack of comparably encouraging developments in this prestigious Indian award highlights the need for more proactive efforts to bridge the gender gap and promote diversity and inclusivity in scientific recognition.

Are there any Steps Taken by the CSIR to Promote Women's Participation?

  • CSIR is recognised as the largest R&D organisation in India, employing a substantial number of scientists. Given its size and influence, CSIR has a significant responsibility to address the issue of women's underrepresentation in science and promote gender diversity.
    • Appointment of First Women Chief: The appointment of N Kalaiselvi as its chief in 2022, making her the first woman to hold this position, is a notable milestone in promoting women's leadership in science and research organisations.
    • Gender Parity Survey: The fact that CSIR conducted a gender parity survey in 2022 demonstrates a commitment to understanding the extent of gender disparities within the organisation.

What are the Causes of the Underrepresentation of Women in Science?

  • Societal Stereotypes and Biases: Deep-rooted stereotypes and biases that are associated with male-dominated scientific fields can discourage women from pursuing careers in these fields.
    • These stereotypes can manifest in the form of implicit biases in hiring, promotion, and recognition processes.
  • Lack of Accountability: Despite the heightened discourse, there is a notable absence of individuals or institutions taking accountability for the challenges and biases that hinder the careers of women scientists.
    • This points to a gap between acknowledging the issues and implementing concrete solutions.
  • Intersectional Challenges: Gender disparities in science are often compounded by other forms of discrimination, including ageism, casteism, and sexism. These multiple layers of bias can create significant barriers for women scientists.
  • Workplace Discrimination: Discrimination, including harassment and unequal treatment, remains a significant barrier for women in scientific fields. This hostile environment can deter women from pursuing and staying in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
  • Unequal Access to Resources: Women may have limited access to research funding, laboratory resources, and networking opportunities compared to their male counterparts, affecting their career progression and recognition.

What Should be the Way Forward?

  • Importance of Recognition: Despite the presence of women in scientific roles, the ongoing challenge lies in ensuring that their contributions are recognised and valued equally.
    • This highlights the need for addressing biases and barriers that may hinder women's career advancement and recognition in the scientific community.
  • Networking and Collaboration: Establish platforms and networks that facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing among women scientists. Encourage participation in national and international scientific communities.
  • Educational Reform: Enhance access to quality STEM education for girls and women at all levels, starting from primary education.
    • This includes implementing programs and scholarships to encourage girls to pursue science-related subjects.
  • Realising Manifold Significance of Higher Representation: Women’s representation in science and technology is essential to design inclusive and sustainable societies.
    • Gender equality is not just an ethical imperative, but also a business priority. Organisations with greater diversity among their executive teams tend to have higher profits and greater innovation capability.

Drishti Mains Question:

Critically analyse the argument that 'there aren't enough women' as an excuse for the persistent underrepresentation of women scientists in institutions.

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