The Missing Women in Scientific Research - Justice Prathiba M Singh

Bar & Bench March 20 2019
Justice Prathiba Singh

 Justice Prathiba M Singh

The world celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8. It was a time to look back, think and analyze the role and involvement of women in various spheres of life. One area where women are lagging behind in India is scientific research and employment in science and allied fields.

The present piece sets out some facts which show that a lot remains to be done in providing women with opportunities in these areas. A major portion of this piece was read at the National Seminar cum Workshop on ‘Women to Lead the Nation’ hosted by the Citizen’s Right Trust at the Indian Law Institute.

Over the years, while women have made strides in science, the contrast between women being educated in science and those contributing in research and patenting is extremely stark.

India has made fair progress in the education of the girl child. It is a fairly common sight to see almost all educational institutions bustling with girls excelling in their respective fields.

An analysis of the data that is available from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) shows that women constitute a large percentage (45-50%) of undergraduate students completing the B.Sc. degree. In Post-Graduate science degrees, for example in M.Sc., the number of women is almost double than that of men. In Engineering courses, the percentage of women who do the B.Tech degree is one-third of men and in the M.Tech degree, it is approximately half. In medical science, the number of women is much higher than that of men, whereas in Engineering and Technology, the female strength is slightly lower.

India, thus, produces lakhs of women graduating in sciences, medical science and engineering. However, what is shocking is their percentage in the mainstream scientific employment and scientific research. While there are not many reports which give details of women in scientific research institutions, a perusal of one report which reviewed the number of women scientists in life sciences showed that only 3.4% of research papers were contributed to by female scientists exclusively. In the case of joint authorship, 47% women had contributed as joint authors. The trends in other fields of science are generally not available as there appears to be no organized date collection about Indian women in science. Thus, while in education, the numbers are extremely encouraging, in the case of employment in science and research, the numbers are abysmally low.

Coming to the field of patents, the PCT International Yearly Review of global filings for 2018 shows that out of the total PCT applications that were filed, which were approximately 2,43,500 in 2017, only 68,270 named a woman as an inventor. Out of the total number of inventors named in PCT applications, 16% were women.

 The data in India is not documented, but one publication made recently shows that out of 1,004 patent applications in the April 2018 patent journal, the percentage of women whose names appeared as inventors was as low as 5.14% as against the global average of approximately 26-27%. This shows that while women are qualified in the sciences, their talent remains underutilized, especially in terms of scientific employment, scientific research and above all patenting.

Women, by nature, are inventive and creative. The small yet wonderful innovations that women create in their own homes may not have always been documented but they are an integral part of our social fabric, especially when it comes to rearing families. In the much-deserved recognition of the contribution of women as homemakers, their formal qualifications must not be ignored.

Some of the relatively unknown women-driven scientific innovations, that have not received the recognition they deserved include the Apgar score - which helps assess the health of new born babies (invented in the year 1952 by Ms. Virgina Apgar), the Kevlar fabric used in bulletproof jackets (invented in the year 1965 by Ms. Stephanie Kwolek), the Laserphaco Probe that restores sight lost due to cataract (invented in the year 1986 by Ms. Patricia Bath), the concept of ‘frequency hopping’ that is the very foundation of the GPS system, Bluetooth and even Wi-fi technology (Invented in the year 1942 by Ms. Hedy Lamarr along with Mr. George Anthiel).

Some have even opined that the contributions of several women innovators have been ignored in the past by the Nobel Committee, exhibiting the gender disparity. These include the discovery of the principles of nuclear fission by Ms. Lise Meitner, the Wu experiment used to disprove the physical law of conservation of parity by Ms. Chien-Shiung Wu, and the non-recognition of Ms. Rosalind Franklin for her photograph and discovery of the structure of the DNA.

Closer home, it was extremely encouraging to see women engineers who were part of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission in 2014. In general, women constitute less than 20% of the scientific community conducting research in India. In organizations like ISRO, reports suggest that 8% of the scientific and technical staff consists of women and in the Department of Space, women are 17% of the total scientific personnel.

If approximately 50% of undergraduate and postgraduate students in our country are women, then what is the reason for the low representation of women in the scientific community? Could this be one of the biggest factors leading to lesser innovation in our country? Are the laws that are meant to protect women and provide women with better facilities subconsciously discouraging employers from employing women? A recent report in the Economic Times seems to suggest so. Is there enough incentive to promote women in research? The answers are far to seek.

The lack of women in research is not merely stultifying the growth of women but also appears to be shackling the scientific growth of our country. If 30-40% of persons qualified in science do not receive formal employment, there is clearly under-utilization of available talent in science.

Adding to this, the number of male scientists who leave India, the country is left with a mere few who can contribute to innovation. From the information at hand, it is no doubt true that women receive technical training. If the same is under the aegis of government funded institutes like the IITs, RECs, Universities, we are spending resources by educating women in the best of institutions at a massive cost, but not actively making the professional environment conducive for women to get employed.

While, in general, there are studies which indicate that women coming into mainstream employment could lead to much more growth in the GDP, than is being currently seen, there is no data available as to how much loss India is actually incurring in terms of lack of growth in sciences due to the lack of employment opportunities for women, qualified in various disciplines of science.

There are reports on how research in medical sciences and pharmaceuticals has led to skewed results sometimes, due to a lack of women involved in the research. For example, in the case of aspirin, scientists failed to map the differing effects of the drug on women and the drug was approved for commercial manufacture and sale without such trials. Thus, the lack of women in science could not only lead to lesser growth, lesser research and lesser patenting but at some point, could also lead to greater harm to society.

There have been some conscious efforts made by successive governments in promoting women in science. One effort that clearly comes to mind is by the Department of Science & Technology, which started a programme for women science graduates to be trained in research and patenting. This programme has completed more than 15 years.

In the year 2018, for example, one scheme known as KIRAN-IPR received 1,800 applications for training women qualified in science as patent agents. A total of 120 women were selected out of which 110 took the course and 33 of them in fact, cleared the patent agent examination. This is a one-year course and at the end of the year, 60% of the women who took the course secured employment. The Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) won the Nari-Shakti Puraskar for this programme on International Women’s Day in 2018. This is promising data.

While the result itself is satisfying, one ought to not rest because it is important to take note of the fact that 1,800 women who were science graduates actually applied for the programme and 1,680 of them were, in fact, left out. This programme proves that the potential for women to be trained in these areas is immense and there are not adequate opportunities made available to women science graduates.

The effort, therefore, needs to be multiplied extensively. While the focus on educating the girl child is needed and ought to continue, enormous focus also needs to be given for tapping into the untapped potential of women qualified in science.

The trigger for this piece was a recent proposed amendment in the patent rules which contemplates expedited examination of those patents where the applicant is a woman, or in the case of multiple applicants, one of the applicants is a woman.

A review of global averages in patenting shows that Asian countries have fared extremely well. Countries like Korea, China, Mexico, and Brazil have achieved greater gender balance in participation of women in patenting. India needs to go their way, especially, when scientifically qualified women are not far to seek here.

India does not follow the system of naming the inventor as in the US. In India, patent applications are usually filed by the company or the organisation which employs the inventors. The benefit of expedited examination should therefore be given where women are shown as inventors instead of just applicants. Such an attempt could encourage research laboratories, universities, companies engaged in research as well as government establishments to employ an increased number of women in scientific research. Such a provision may also act as a set off against the various factors that exist to discourage employers from employing women. It would also lead to scientifically qualified women being given flexibilities like work from home etc.

A problem that could arise is that women may be used to lend their names for patent applications. However, that would merely be looking at the negative side of things. It has been said that the 30% reservation for women on boards of companies did have the initial effect of mere tokenism which has however changed over years. The benefit thus ought to be granted while curbing misuse.

While commentators in India speak of brain drain, we do not seem to address the hidden brain drain in our own country. We need to do more to tap this untapped potential!

Justice Prathiba M Singh is a sitting judge of the Delhi High Court.

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