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Home / Analysis / Make physics more gender inclusive

Make physics more gender inclusive

Address bias in hiring; invest in social science training; and work-life balance policies for all

analysis Updated: Mar 11, 2020 16:47 IST
Prajval Shastri
Prajval Shastri
Institutions need to invest in strong mentoring mechanisms for early-career academics, so that they do not have to rely on external socialising, beer evenings or on the goodwill of senior academics
Institutions need to invest in strong mentoring mechanisms for early-career academics, so that they do not have to rely on external socialising, beer evenings or on the goodwill of senior academics(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It just takes a short walk around town to see that gender equality in our society is, as yet, a distant goal. Should we then worry at all about gender inequity in the microcosm of physics? Indeed, we should. Even as the Supreme Court has come down hard upon the Indian Army’s patriarchal notions around women’s competence, we, in a privileged and purportedly “objective” science, are still tying ourselves up in knots. Our policies to mitigate gender inequity are still driven by gender-stereotyped notions: That it is only the women who need special scientific and leadership training, or awareness building in gender inequity, or extra leave for child care, or even flexible work hours in order to cook and clean. There is still huge resistance to the idea of work-life balance as something for everybody. Worse, there is little reflection on what the evidence speaks about the whole story.

The gender gap in physics is big, globally and in India. The fraction of women with PhDs in physics who are employed in tertiary education nationally is 20%, far less than in, say, biology. Worse, that fraction plummets to single digits in elite research institutions, in leadership positions and in honours lists. How do we understand this trend?

Investigations that have compared scientific competence and productivity of researchers across genders have found no systematic deficit among women scientists. Nor is there evidence of a lack of interest in physics among girls: 50% of government science fellowships for physics are won by girls. Discriminatory familial responsibilities, the much-touted cause of the gender gap in the work force, cannot be weighing down women physicists more than biologists, and, therefore, this cannot be the whole story. Clearly, there is a strong gender bias within the profession. Indeed, when a process of selection into, say, leadership positions or honours lists, reduces the gender fraction, that is a clear signature of bias in the process.

There are, of course, no overt strictures against women practising physics at any level, unlike, for example, in the Indian Army. However, patriarchy lurks under the surface. Micro-aggressions driven by misogyny and toxic masculinity frequently raise their head in scientific forums and in corridor conversation. Hidden norms, such as not hiring a scientist’s meritorious spouse, still exist, especially among the older, elite public institutions. Sexual misconduct is still perceived as part of the “boys will be boys” syndrome rather than as scientific misconduct.

Clearly, the physics profession needs to reach beyond the confines of its discipline to understand and address its gender bias. A first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary conference was organised by the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association at the University of Hyderabad in 2019. Around 240 physicists, social scientists, educationists and diversity practitioners deliberated on the social processes in physics practice.

Several key recommendations emerged from the conference. First, that work-life balance policies, including child-care leave, career-break support, and mobility schemes that facilitate geographic proximity of jobs for couples, should be available to all genders. While not at all disadvantaging women, such gender-neutral policies would instead encourage wider cultural change. Further, the possibility of stigmatising women as somehow “favoured” would be eliminated.

Second, policies of hiring and promotion should be based on transparent merit criteria alone, explicitly formulated beforehand, and free of hidden norms. The norm of not hiring spouses is anyway blatantly untenable, since institutions will never be able to fire a scientist for marrying a colleague. An upper-age bar is often imposed, discriminating against women who have taken career breaks. A woman’s spouse being employed in a different location is frequently held against her. Mandating diversity officers as observers in selection committees and editorial boards was strongly recommended.

Third, a mandatory course by sociologists on the impact of social processes in the practice of science was recommended for the graduate physics curriculum. This is expected to partially address the lack of rigorous exposure of Indian-educated physicists to any discipline that studies human behaviour.

Fourth, institutions need to invest in strong mentoring mechanisms for early-career academics, so that they do not have to rely on external socialising, beer evenings and the like or on the voluntary goodwill and time of senior academics. Typically, the men have access to the former while even privileged women have to take recourse to the latter. Diversity measures can trigger more hostile behaviours towards women. One way to mitigate hostility is by creating safe spaces for dialogue across gender and power divides, even using non-traditional immersive and experiential methodologies derived from theatre.

Other long-standing recommendations such as mandatory childcare facilities in institutions and conferences, gender-audit of staff at different levels on institutional webpages, mandatory self-declaration of previous indictments of sexual misconduct in all faculty applications and nominations to prestigious positions, as well as gender-balancing of text books and science communication materials were reiterated. . These recommendations have been gathered into the “Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics” on the occasion of Women’s Day, and have received over a 100 endorsements from physicists, including senior researchers, leaders and early-career practitioners.

We physicists need to stop “fixing our women” because there is no evidence that they need fixing. We need to fix the flawed meritocracy instead, so that we build a more nurturing learning environment.

Prajval Shastri is an astrophysicist from Bengaluru and chair of the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association

The views expressed are personal

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