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  • Ekta Kumar

Venus, Mars and the Science around it

Which is the better half - men or women? Contrary to what most stand up comics have to say, when it comes to the intellect, they are both equal. On an individual basis, some have a little more, and some much less, but it would be unfair to say that the faculty to reason objectively and understand things depends on the sex - for that we have the Y chromosome. So why is it that we don't have enough women in science? It's not just India, the numbers are low across the world. Which is why when a lady called Karen Uhlenbeck won the 'Nobel prize for Mathematics' (it's called the Abel Prize) a few days ago, it made headlines.

She is certainly not the first woman to excel in mathematics. History has scattered references to brilliant women who left their mark through the ages. Way back in the early 5th century Alexandria, was Hypatia - a woman much admired, and equally hated for being a leading thinker and a mathematician. A few centuries later we have our own Lilavati, who as legend goes was taught science and maths by her famous mathematician father Bhaskaracharya. Florence Nightingale the nurse with the lamp, was also a pioneering statistician who used numbers and graphs to reduce mortality rates. We've heard of the mathematical prodigy Shakuntala Devi, Madame Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Ade Lovelace, who wrote the world's first computer programme, physicist Lise Meitner and so on. Yes, there are inspiring examples, but there are not enough of them. And how can there be, when women are mostly missing from the world of science.

As per the World Economic Forum, 72% of the world's researchers are men. There are many hurdles - social, economic and cultural that explain the abysmally low number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Some of which begin very early in life. Stereotypes are hard to fight. The computer geek is mostly represented as a young guy in a hoodie. Many years ago the very popular 'Teen Barbie' famously mouthed the lines 'maths class is tough!' - imagine a young girl holding that doll. Forever 21 sold t-shirts to young teenagers that read 'Allergic to Algebra'. Even the well meaning phrase 'girls are as good as boys in maths' by a reveals an inherent bias. We set up barriers before the children can even think for themselves. It doesn't get easier when the girls grow up. Academic and research institutions tend to be dominated by men, and can exhibit gender biases which include lack of support during critical phases of a womans' life like childbirth. The dearth of informal networks and mentors makes it tougher. Women tend to drop out. There are hardly any female representation in top positions.

Of the over 800 Nobel Prizes given so far, only 52 have been given to women. Madame Curie is the only woman to win it twice, and not that she had it easy. Her membership application to the prestigious French Academy of Sciences was rejected, for being 'female'. Things have not changed enough since then.

NASA, recently cancelled a historic all women spacewalk due to lack of enough spacesuits that could fit women. Ironically the event was to supposed to be a milestone in women's achievement in science and technology, and yet clearly their equipment was mostly designed for men. It does point to a certain systemic sexism that exists even in a world class American organisation like NASA. Budget pressures forced them to limit sizes, but it was the women who paid the price for it. In 2003, 8 out of the 25 women astronauts could not fit into the available spacesuits and thus could not be assigned to spacewalk. All the men however could find a good fit and had the chance to go.

Back home, a few years ago a photograph of smiling women scientists at ISRO, cheering the successful launch of the Mangalayan spacecraft into the Mars orbit, was widely applauded. It was symbolic, of women in science being successful. However it is interesting to note, that ISRO till date, has never been headed by a women.

As per the All India Survey on Higher Education, over 70% of students opting for Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech) and Bachelor of Engineering (BE) in 2014-15, were men. As per Nasscom, the technology sector is the second largest employer of women. They almost equal men at the entry level, but that number rapidly falls in leadership positions. We need to understand and ask why do the participation rates vary, both in the academic sphere and in the workplace. Removing unconscious biases that exist around opportunities, roles and choices for women and encouraging STEM education is just the beginning. Once they choose STEM, there has to be a robust system in place so that women are actively recruited and then retained.

As per a McKinsey report, including women can add $700 billion to India GDP by 2025. We especially need them in technical fields, given in increasing integration of technology into our lives. The absence of women in the science workforce is a huge lost opportunity in terms of their possible contributions to understanding our world and making it better and safer. There are enough studies which stress on the importance of diversity in teams that are leading scientific research. Individuals from different backgrounds and genders bring different perspectives. We've learnt this the hard way. Till a few years ago car manufacturers were using crash dummies that were made on the basis of an average male body thus making women more susceptible to injuries in car crashes. Medicines are less safe for women too, it was only in 1993 that it was discovered that aspirin reacts differently in men and women. Tools are made for big man hands, and there are enough examples of gender bias creeping into artificial intelligence. The list is long. Which is why we need more women in research labs and workshops across the world, so that they can participate in decisions that will ultimately envision, design and construct our future.

It is not really necessary to fight over who is the better half. Under-representation of women in science is a big loss. There is no doubt, we need to include both halves.

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