Editor’s note: #DesiSTEMinist is a campaign to celebrate women in the field of STEM and highlight their contributions.

Posted by Tavleen Singh

It’s unclear if men in STEM hate women, but they certainly love themselves. A lot.

On February 7 2019, National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), one of the largest databases of scientific literature, published a paper titled ‘Female anatomy and hysterical duality’. This paper attempts to explain hysteria as a trait inherent to females and a component of biological determinism.

The study builds on a popular trend of disregarding women as scientists and human beings. It is symptomatic of a larger problem of subtle misogyny plaguing the field of scientific research. This manifests itself not just by tainting research but also by eliminating the narratives of women and their work in STEM.

As a postgraduate student of Biology, I have attended my fair share of introductory lectures which trace the important work led by eminent scientists that converged into the modern-day perception of the field. Invariably, we were asked about the ‘father’ of the field and we mindlessly skimmed past images of the men who shaped the domain.

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For those seeking diverse examples, women researchers are often buried deep in the acknowledgements but never listed as primary authors.

For those seeking diverse examples, they’re often buried deep in the acknowledgements but never listed as primary authors. These are stories of women overcoming hurdles with hard work and perseverance and yet their brilliance has been pushed into the shadows by the men who were in control. The lack of other women is then attributed to the ‘culture’ of the time and no heed is paid to the systemic hurdles that prevented women from entering and establishing themselves in the field.

In the years before publishing his early works on the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein was working on two papers. Mileva Maric, often only known to people as Einstein’s partner, was working on two papers of her own, when she had to drop out of her academic program due to her pregnancy. A few years later, Einstein went on to publish four papers, a miraculous feat that shot him to fame. His letters to her are filled with proof of her role in the research and even his meticulous notes do not contain the earliest manuscripts detailing this work.

Despite all this evidence pointing in the direction of Maric’s lost contribution, her work and achievements are rarely ever mentioned in a world where the word ‘genius’ and Einstein are used interchangeably.

Biology boasts of a more infamous case of scientific misconduct, with the names of James Watson and Francis Crick overshadowing the role played by Rosalind Franklin in elucidating the structure of DNA that spearheaded the research surrounding the molecule behind our functional blueprint. Watson took Franklin’s crystallographic data without her permission and went on to publish the reputed double helix model of DNA that won him the Nobel Prize. Despite having a long-standing tryst with sexist, racist and homophobic statements, Watson is a name revered in classrooms, with no attention paid to the consequences of an individual’s ideals being propagated as scientific facts in the public domain. In his book, amidst numerous sexist remarks about Franklin’s appearance and disposition, he vaguely credits her for developing the crux of the research. Yet in popular scientific discourse, he is given more credit for his apology than Franklin is for her work.

Also read: A. Mani Lays Down How To Fight Sexism And Queerphobia In STEM | #DesiSTEMinist

This culture percolates down to every level of scientific study and research, culminating in the abysmal statistics that reflect the absence of women from positions of power in academia.

The consequence of this is even further pronounced in fields such as medicine and disease-related research where studies focus primarily on men and extrapolate results to women, a normalisation that has a grave impact on the healthcare and services provided to women. Research such as that published by NCBI using terms like ‘hysteria’ builds upon the work of countless men who have exploited scientific disciplines to misrepresent data and ensure the balance of power always remains tilted in their direction. It is an extension of their desire to exclude women from research. This is in sharp contrast to the time and resources spent by women towards research with tangible social consequences and yet their work is rarely duly recognised.

It is a disservice to the field of science to not make every effort to open its doors to the majority of the population that has never had its voice heard.

Even as more and more women join the STEM fields, deep-rooted indoctrination prevalent in the workspace stacks the weight of assumptions against them. They are aware of the constant scrutiny and generalisation that would follow in case of a single mistake. Carrying the burden of this representation, they have to walk the tightrope between managing their personal and professional life, always staying two steps ahead to make sure they are taken seriously.

The problem isn’t exclusive to India. Faced with a lack of gender equity and diversity at conferences, researchers in the West constructed databases which systematically curated information about women scientists from a multitude of fields. They argued that easy accessibility would generate greater transparency and rid the selection process of inherent bias.
Currently, such specific approaches have not been taken in India and the gender ratio at our scientific meetings and events mirrors this.

However, various women are working tirelessly to bring these problems to the forefront as well as digging deep to find and highlight the lost stories of groundbreaking research pioneered by women. On February 11, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, India Biosciences launched Spoorthi, an e-booklet which was aimed at celebrating women in science and covers a diverse range of topics such as specific challenges, mentorship opportunities, laws, and grants available to women while also narrating the stories of trailblazing scientists in the field. The Life of Science, a science media platform, traverses the country to curate the achievements and obstacles of women across the country’s laboratories.

Also read: How My STEMinist Mother Paved Way For My Future In STEM | #DesiSTEMinist

At the core of scientific temperament and research lies objectivity and innovation. By bringing in greater diversity and expanding its horizons to increase perspective, science has the power to challenge the status quo. It is a disservice to the field to not make every effort to open its doors to the majority of the population that has never had its voice heard. In this regard, it is imperative for not just the government, but every individual who yields power in science to seek examples, to make the research labs and classrooms accessible and to foster a safe space in these male-dominated areas to make them more inclusive. Only then would STEM be able to unleash its full potential.

Tavleen Singh is a student of Human Disease Genetics and a feminist. She aims to work at the intersection of genetics, public health and policy, especially women’s sexual and reproductive health to make sure they have access to affordable and comprehensive healthcare at all levels. You can follow her on Instagram.

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