International Women’s Day- Random thoughts of a Woman Scientist

India, a country rich in its cultures and traditions has deep reverence to women since ancient times. We not only pray to female deities as per our religious leanings but also celebrate national festivals by their names. Examples include the Saraswati Puja for the “Goddess of Knowledge” or the Lakshmi Puja for the “Goddess of Wealth”. The ancient texts quote “यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः । यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ।। मनुस्मृति ३/५६ ।।“

Growing up with these beliefs and foundation, it is indeed surprising that I hear the need for gender parity in the country. I think it is important to look into facts for greater introspection to address this grave issue. One also wonders if there is an actual dearth of women achievers? Is it so difficult in identifying them? How do we bring them to mainstream and give them leadership roles?

I start with the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 that places India at 112 among 153 countries studied, stating therewith that one of the key reasons for this is the difference in the literacy rate between men (82%) and women (66%). India is reported to be the only country where the economic gender gap is larger than the political gender gap. Statistics reveal that we need about 99.5 years and about 71 years to close the gender gap globally and in the South Asian region, respectively.

All is not bad, as the report indicates that India has a relatively smaller gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) higher education. In the area of Cloud Computing considered to be one of the “male professions” of the future, India and Italy are close to gender parity. That’s indeed something to rejoice!

Continuing on this note of celebrating achievements and successes, however small they may be, got me to remind myself that the year 2020 saw 4 women Nobel laureates. However, a careful look at the facts points out that in about120 years of its institution, women laureates include a mere 58 out of 962 awardees so far: just about 6% of the total. What’s more surprising to me was that the first women laureate in Chemistry from the United States of America was only in 2018.

This made me also look into the highest and most coveted national award in Science, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prize. Instituted in 1958 and now covering seven disciplines, the women winners of this SSB prize constitute a mere 3.2% (18 of 560 awardees in the last 62 years). I then shifted my attention to the inspiring Infosys Prize winners, to look for signs of gender parity. Instituted in 2008 with just one category of Mathematical Sciences, today it covers six different disciplines. In the last 13 years, 74 scientists and scholars were awarded the prestigious Infosys prize. Among them, 17 are women awardees constituting a healthier ~23% of the total. The humanities and social sciences saw five women achievers each, followed by three in life sciences, 2 in engineering and computer sciences, and one each in physical and mathematical sciences.

How does one address this gap of due recognition of women’s talent and expertise? Do we look for systemic and structural changes starting at the very first step when seeking nominations? Can we subscribe to the idea that every male nomination needs to be complemented with a female nomination as well, not limiting oneself to one’s own institution?

One the matters of handling day to day activities, we often seem to be at crossroads of whether to tread the path already taken or take the untrodden path. We look for role models to take confidence and motivation from, so to move forward towards the desired goal. For some of us, even the well-trodden path is aplenty with challenges. Few don’t give up despite the hurdles.

Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shah and Dr Swati Piramal, ladies of the pharma and biotech sector, lead by example. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us new leaders to take encouragement from – Dr Sowmya Swaminathan and Dr. Gagandeep Kang. Lt Gen Madhuri Kanitkar and Flt Lt Bhawana Kanth inspire us to take bold steps forward to reach great heights. On the aspects of ethics, respect to people’s livelihood and environment, while keeping ourselves grounded, Dr Vandana Shiva and Mrs Sudha Murthy are great leaders to look up to. Though far and few, these are all women leaders of the current times.

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) saw its first woman Director in the year 2013, after 71 years of its inception. Today we have four woman Directors leading four of its constituent laboratories. The CSIR Hq has four ladies handling the affairs of its four directorates/Units, efficiently dealing with science management, diplomacy and administration. Small step but a celebratory one to take pride of!

Coming back to the need for closing gender gaps, the preceding paras highlight gaps and emerging trends to bridge the cause. The questions therefore are what and how do we emulate as success stories and best practices to cover a larger canvas and help us leap frog or pole vault to achieve our goals, and by when?

When I started working on this note, I thought that I might actually find practical solutions. However, it seems that I am left with more questions than before!

Awareness is key for the change or transformation we aspire to bring about. The celebration of International Women’s Day is one such to ensure we revisit our experiences, share them, help each other, take inspiration from the achievers while we continue to #choosetochallenge!

My greetings to all on the International Women’s Day!


Dr. Viswajanani J Sattigeri
Head, Traditional Knowledge Digital Library
CSIR