Sexism in science: review of ‘Lab Hopping’ by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj

Woman scientists in India face an uphill struggle in a field which is male-dominated 

Updated - July 21, 2023 10:49 am IST

Published - July 21, 2023 09:45 am IST

The authors lay bare several barriers to women’s entry into and persistence in the field of science.

The authors lay bare several barriers to women’s entry into and persistence in the field of science. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

“Especially when women made it to higher levels, their gender marginalisation carried an extra burden of immaculacy, which, needless to say, men are exempt from.”

The last four words of this sentence from the book Lab Hopping, are not “needless to say”; in fact, they bear repeating. The sentence itself is deceptively insightful about the challenges of being a woman in science in India today. It is heavy with the weight of history – women can make it to the higher levels today but once couldn’t, and even now, people, beliefs, systems, and attitudes are trying to stop them. They are discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity.

Such statements are likely to fall flat to someone who doesn’t, at the mention of “science”, think about the whole fruit the scientific endeavour is, and dwells just on its sweet pulp. Contrary to popular perception, the scientific enterprise is not about science but about the organisation of power and labour unto the efficient production of scientific knowledge. Lab Hopping is the wisdom-dense new book by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj delving into what it means to be a non-cis-male scientist in this milieu, a painstaking effort to map the incursions of power gone unchecked despite claims that science is objective.

The violence of erasure

The authors lay bare several barriers to women’s entry into and persistence within science, from implicit sexism to a lack of role models, from horribly delayed grants to insensitive obligations and expectations, from lofty invocations of oppressive symbols and narratives to execrable preoccupations with caste.

Their documentary efforts preceding this book, collected at their ‘The Life of Science’ website, started off as an attempt to rediscover India’s female scientists. It was a crucial effort because we knew these women were there, as flippant as that sounds, but – as Lab Hopping sets out – without bringing them together, listening to their stories, and recording their voices, we were continuing to subject their struggles to the same violence that our pre-modern counterparts had: the violence of erasure.

Lab Hopping weaves all of these stories together into a clear-headed, opinionated, and fierce history that stands in stark contrast to the one that historian of science Meera Nanda decries in the book: “The history of science IS the history of exclusion of women.”

And while women have a tough time navigating the structures and strictures of science, the authors, to their credit, also adopt an intersectional view of the exponents of scientific work to unearth and discuss several axes of oppression, including attitudes towards disability, caste, language, and – baffling as it seems – transparency. For example, we don’t know why some people win a Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize while others, including a bevy of deserving women, don’t.

As things stand, efforts like Lab Hopping educate. If it is to eventually reorganise the conditions in which scientific work happens, it needs to be translated into more languages and included in higher education curricula as well.

Lab Hopping
Aashima Dogra, Nandita Jayaraj
Penguin/Viking
₹499

mukunth.v@thehindu.co.in

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