Women in STEM: Easier to Travel to Space Than to Conferences

Travelling to space is no big deal for women scientists compared to making travel plans for the next big conference

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Thanks to sexism, a junior female astronaut might go into space every now and then, but they might never reach the top of a space agency situated in our own planet.
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On the New Year’s day in 2016, when the prestigious Oxford University officially appointed its first female vice chancellor in its approximate 900-year-old history, there was much discussion on how very few female vice chancellors exist on this entire planet.

A recent survey in India found that the gender ratio of female vice chancellorships is hardly about 3%. If one excludes the women’s only universities from this list, the percentage drops even further. Our present world rarely sees a woman leading a top scientific journal, or a space agency, or a nuclear reactor facility.

If one goes to the root of these severe gender gaps at the top, one finds that the reasons are multiple, and they are systemic; both nationally (in the Indian context) and internationally (for women scientists all over the world).

The strong presence of women scientists and staff in the recent, highly successful Mars Orbiter Mission of ISRO, is a genuine testimony to the scientific as well as space-oriented administrative abilities of women in our country.

The photograph of women scientists and staff celebrating the grand success of Mars Orbiter Mission went viral all over the world. It even became a symbol of traditional and grounded women propelling a nation into space.

Women staff at ISRO celebrating the success of Mangalyaan. 
Women staff at ISRO celebrating the success of Mangalyaan. 
(Photo: Courtesy AFP)

Although women achieve so much with whatever limited resources and numbers they are provided with, it is still difficult to find any name of a female scientist leading (becoming the chairman, chief or director) our important institutions like ISRO, BARC, DRDO, IISc, IITs, IIMs or even the top research institutes funded by the central or state governments.

In comparison, there are more examples of women reaching the top in other government arenas like becoming cabinet ministers or secretary level civil servants leading a ministry/dept or Indian ambassadors leading embassies, or police commissioners leading metros or becoming judges in the Supreme Court and high courts.

It is slightly ironical that it is in the scholarly or academic circles that we have the highest number of women at the bottom, and fewer women (compared to other government jobs) reaching the top.

In today’s mainstream scientific world, travelling for conferences, international collaborations, field trips, telescopic observations and laboratories are crucial to the advancement of a scientist’s career. On this front, a typical female scientist faces multiple challenges at different points in her life and at different career stages.

Early career female scientists, even in their early 20s, start to face the difficulty of changing their last names and adding spouse’s name in their travel documents like passport and visas.

There are plenty of stories of female scientists travelling back and forth to their home countries to deal with the tedious paperwork pertaining to obtaining marriage certificates from the registrar’s office, adding spouse name in their passport from regional passport offices or home country’s foreign missions.

There are instances where if a female candidate declares ‘being married’ in visa application forms, then they are supposed to have their spouse’s name entered in their passports.

These rules normally do not apply to men. In most cases, it is the female scientist who tries to move and settle in her spouse’s country or spouse’s location of work, and the opposite movement does not really happen in this male dominated world.

Moreover, when female scientists apply for spousal visa or permanent settlement or citizenship, it is not uncommon to face long processing times of many months to years. And the unfair issue connected with this system is the travel restrictions they force on the applicants during the processing period.

In today’s academic climate, if a scientist repeatedly misses the important conferences and collaboration or observing or laboratory or field trips because of their inability to travel outside their workplace, their career is totally shattered.

This would directly impact their visibility in the scientific community, reduce the number of publications, their publication citations, deprive their chances to be on important committees or chairs of conferences or decision making professional bodies. In due course, such female scientists’ CV would not stand a chance against the CV of their male counterparts in severely competitive selection procedures.

In the mid-life career stages, one does notice many female scientists having difficulty in travelling for work tasks when they have children of a young age. The number of conferences or collaboration institutions having full fledged childcare facilities are quite low. This trend is slowly improving with baby steps, but in most cases they are also extremely expensive, especially when scientists travel from developing countries to the first world conference venues.

Most of the remote astronomical observing sites or field trip sites or particle accelerator sites are not the most accommodating places to travel with small babies. These factors add up to the cases where female scientists quietly stay away from such work trips, thereby directly sacrificing their career growth until their children reach an independent age.

Unlike in the Nordic part of the world, where they have excellent maternity and paternity paid leave, plus highly humane child support system, many parts of the world do not have an understanding and supportive paid childcare leave system. After all these sudden fluctuations in their professional and personal fronts during the child rearing period, it becomes incredibly difficult for women scientists to get back into the same platform on a level playing field.

Apart from all these biological, personal and logistical challenges by the time a female scientist becomes sufficiently senior, there are some medieval and sexist attitudes from their male colleagues of an older generation who try to block their chances in occupying high seats of power.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s personal story of being ignored for the Nobel Prize in Physics for the excellent discovery of pulsating stars is just another example of these demoralising attitudes. Her discovery fetched his male supervisor the Nobel. Fortunately for her and the humanity, she still went to become one of the most celebrated astrophysicists of all times, in spite of the severe gender bias.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell detected the first radio pulsar, one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. 
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell detected the first radio pulsar, one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th century. 
(Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia)

For every Jocelyn with a first world passport, there are at least ten female scientists with a third world passport standing in queue to insert their spouse’s name in travel document, or get their conference visa stamped on time, or waiting for permanent residence card in their spouse’s country of work or even waiting endlessly for permission to travel outside their work base. And their life is not easy to even present their results at a conference; forget the Nobel part!

There is something for other countries to learn from the Nordic gender-balance system. As I write this article from Norway, my immediate boss, the administration leader as well as the centre director are female scientists.

A more positive gender-sensitive approach from bureaucracy, diplomacy and scientific selection committees to accommodate genuine career gaps is the need of the hour. A junior female astronaut might go into space every now and then, but they might never reach the top of a space agency situated in our own planet!

(The author, Dr Aswin Sekhar, is an Indian astrophysicist presently working at Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway. This views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same )

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