A harbinger of gender parity in the field of Indian physics
Over 500 Indian physicists have endorsed the Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics — a call to action to fix systemic barriers to gender equity within physics
Women’s Day saw an unusual shift in the Indian physics world. In a discipline heavily overrepresented by men, equality work by physicists of all genders has made for a silver lining. Over 500 Indian physicists have endorsed the Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics — a call to action to fix systemic barriers to gender equity within physics.
Physics, often touted as the king of the sciences, has among the worst gender gaps globally — with India being no exception. The fraction of women among physics PhDs employed in Indian higher education is only 20%, compared to nearly 50% for all the sciences. Worse, in elite institutions, it plummets to 10%, and only a handful of women physicists win awards or make it to honours lists or governing councils of prestigious institutes.
Indian physicists acknowledged the gender gap but rarely admitted to discrimination within as the cause for the gap, much less admit to discrimination being structural and not about a sprinkling of senior “bad apple” physicist men. The root cause of the gap was touted to be due to societal expectations that women shoulder familial responsibilities. And so, while the government acknowledged gender discrimination and allotted funds for mitigation at the start of the millennium, the resulting measures, however, took the shape of “fixing women” and “helping women with caregiving”.
So there was skill-building for women, couched as “empowerment” — assuming women to be less competent. There was also allowance for family responsibilities, namely, “career-break” and “mobility” schemes. However, instead of making them open to all genders, which would be a step towards dismantling gender-discriminatory societal caregiving expectations and thus seeding the cultural change we need, the schemes exclude men. The implicit message is clear: Women must shoulder caregiving alone while the schemes help tide over the impacts. The underlying patriarchy is blatant.
Besides, studies have shown no scientific productivity deficit among women scientists, not even that they put in fewer working hours.
And the ground truth? Senior physicists (mostly, but not exclusively men) discourage young women physicists by saying that physics is not really for them; that they will have to work “really hard” to manage their families while pursuing physics; that they cannot “have it all” because physics is difficult. They are urged into school teaching because vacations will sync with children’s vacations, or even into “appropriate” subfields, such as computational physics, because the processing time of several hours for a computing task will facilitate attending to caring responsibilities during this wait.
Elite Indian institutions are known to disqualify meritorious women from being hired as faculty if their spouse is a faculty member in that institution, and sometimes also if their significant other works in a different city — a hidden norm that unjustly hinders women’s careers. Furthermore, women who become parents while employed report being suddenly made to feel incompetent. Despite no productivity deficit, the career advancement of women scientists is systematically slower.
Even well-established senior women physicists have to get used to being told to “calm down” when they express strong opinions, being berated for dressing up, and are assumed to be incompetent in technical matters such as purchasing computer hardware or budgetary choices. They have also been denied directorships despite merit, because “they will be unable to manage that and family”. To top it all, there is pervasive sexual harassment.
“We must begin early, in high-school”, is also often said, but this is problematic for two reasons.
First, it becomes an excuse for inaction on the ground reality of debilitating practices and behaviour described above in institutions of higher education and research. Second, it becomes all about science camps for girls, which is clearly barking up the wrong tree, because as many girls as boys nationally win the prestigious INSPIRE physics fellowships for higher studies. On the other hand, a survey of four high schools in Dehradun showed that boys are already thinking that girls are bad at science. Little wonder that they grow up to be scientists who practice overt and covert sexism.
Clearly, we need camps for all genders, that teach science in engaging ways and also dismantle these sexist notions of girls and science.
This grim state is the reason why the Hyderabad charter receiving unequivocal community support assumes significance. The time for change is here and now. Its 10 guiding principles and 29 recommendations are explicit about the systemic barriers to gender equity within physics and a call to fix them now.
Among the recommendations are: Transparent merit criteria for hiring with no hidden norms; equality education up to leadership levels; self-declaration of misconduct investigations; sociology courses in the curriculum; and that interventions must be evidence-based and must never reinforce patriarchy.
The recommendations were presented at a first-of-its-kind national conference in 2019 at the University of Hyderabad, where physicists of all genders talked physics, but also deliberated with sociologists and educationists about institutional sexism — all of which was distilled into the Hyderabad charter. Building community awareness was followed up by many physicists of all genders.
Countrywide, early and mid-career as well as senior physics PhDs from colleges, universities and elite institutions, present and past institutional leaders, retired physicists and those who have moved into industry, journalism and elsewhere, have all endorsed this harbinger of real institutional change. Indeed, equality is everyone’s work and the flawed meritocracy can now begin to be fixed.
Prajval Shastri is an astrophysicist based in Bengaluru and led the Hyderabad charter effort as founder and past chair of the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association
The views expressed are personal