500+ physicists endorse ‘Hyderabad Charter’ to close physics gender gap

According to one estimate, only 13% of physics faculty members in India are currently women.

March 08, 2023 08:00 am | Updated 11:54 am IST - Chennai

The Hyderabad Charter was drafted at a conference at the University of Hyderabad in 2019.

The Hyderabad Charter was drafted at a conference at the University of Hyderabad in 2019. | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal/The Hindu

More than 500 practitioners and students of physics have endorsed the Hyderabad Charter to address and resolve gender gaps in physics education and research in India as of International Women’s Day this year, including prominent researchers like Enakshi Bhattacharya, Somak Raychaudhury, Chayanika Shah, and Ashoke Sen.

The Hyderabad Charter was drafted by the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association in 2019, during a national interdisciplinary conference organised at the University of Hyderabad, attended by physicists, sociologists, policymakers, educationists, and government officials. The charter has 10 guiding principles and 29 recommendations to physics departments, institutes, physics teachers, conference organisers, and national agencies.

The endorsements mark “a major shift because it shows that physicists of all genders are finally acknowledging that the barriers to gender equity are within physics itself, so we need to stop fixing the women and dismantle the systemic structural barriers instead,” Prajval Shastri, the astrophysicist who led the effort to draft the charter, said via email. “There are no more excuses for inaction within our institutions.”

The charter notes that despite women winning half of the INSPIRE fellowships for physics, “the fraction of women with PhDs in physics who are employed in tertiary education countrywide is just 20%, far less than in … biology. That fraction plummets to 10% and lower in the elite research institutions, in leadership positions and in honours lists.”

According to Bias Watch India, an initiative by researchers Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan and Shruti Muralidhar to keep track of the fraction of women in various fields, only 13% of physics faculty members in India are currently women.

“The Hyderabad Charter is an excellent and thorough roadmap for us to follow and implement to create a level playing field for all,”  Shriharsh Tendulkar, a physicist with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, said.

The Working Group consisted of six working physicists and was led by Dr. Shastri, emeritus professor at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru. She created the Working Group in 2016. “The charter is not really meant to be adapted as a whole by institutions,” Dr. Shastri said. “It is meant to start conversations and actions fine-tuned to their particular situation in the spirit of the charter.”

At previous meetings of the group and other similar international events, women in physics in India have said systemic biases in academic publishing, gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, lack of punishment for those guilty of misconduct, and lack of interest among male peers, among other issues, are responsible for their dismal representation at various levels.

“There is already underrepresentation of all marginalised communities at every stage of physics that in itself propagates existing bias,” Aratrika Dey, a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, and a signatory to the Hyderabad Charter, said. “Transparent hiring procedures without hidden norms and institutions investing in diversity officers would go a long way to redress that.”

The charter’s recommendations include “self-declaration of sexual misconduct indictments … for staff applications”, mandatory and preferably subsidised child-care facilities, “a sociology course on social processes in science practice [as] part of the graduate physics curriculum”, and the use of fixed and explicit hiring criteria.

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