Policies that effectively preclude women from pursuing particular courses of study and professions are evidently neither rational nor scientific. Yet, gender discrepancies are most stark in the science disciplines, hindering women’s participation in the science and technology industry around the world, according to the International Labour Organisation. Women graduates are discriminated against in research openings in the United States, as per a Yale University study. In 2005, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, a top-ranking economist and treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, provoked a furore with his highly sexist remarks. He argued that men outperformed women in science and maths due to biological differences and discrimination was not a barrier. That Mr. Summers’s successor was a woman of eminence, or that other Ivy League institutions have females at the helm, by itself does not negate pervasive stereotypes. According to the ILO, the Iranian government has recently barred women from careers in nuclear physics and electrical engineering. Chinese institutions expect women to obtain higher entry grades for science courses than their male counterparts. Moreover, women in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development region obtain more than half of all university degrees but their share of qualifications in science and technology is a mere 30 per cent. Clearly, it is wrong to presume an automatic connection between an open, democratic society and the realisation of equality of opportunities.
In India, the female-to-male student ratio in most scientific disciplines has been rising but women are still grossly under-represented in major scientific establishments in the public sector, not to speak of the upper echelons of science administration and management. This systemic failure to ensure the presence of women has a cascading effect throughout the S&T ecosystem and serves as a major disincentive for the thousands of capable women who wish to make a career in science. The total number of women scientists to win the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award has barely crossed double-digits after five decades. The landmark 2004 Indian National Science Academy study, Science Career for Indian Women, found that while most women scientists did not find it difficult to find a job, “many complained of gender-insensitive organisational practices and workplace discrimination, which came in way of their career growth”. Many also complained of gender-related nepotism and even sexual harassment. One decade later, anecdotal evidence suggests the situation is not much better.