Posted by Shreyas Gadge and Vinita Mulay
This series of articles, originally published in Manthan, presents a compilation of interviews of five women academics about the cause of women in STEM and the associated effects that are catapulted by the pandemic.
To have a career in academia, women have always had to face institutionalised challenges to establish themselves. The times are tougher than usual when women academics, while playing many different roles – supervisor, educator, researcher, spouse, parent, relative, friend, and others; are taking up extra responsibilities and coping with the work from home conditions due to the pandemic.
This article is in conversation with Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan, highlighting a woman’s perspective on the pandemic while also dwelling upon what the future holds for women in STEM. Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan is an EMBL Australia Group Leader at the Single Molecule Science unit at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Prior to this, she was an Assistant Professor at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Science. In June 2020, she co-founded BiasWatchIndia, an initiative that documents women representation in Indian academia and combats gender-biased panels in Indian science conferences, meetings and talks.
Read the full interview below.
How did you cope with living away from loved ones and the pandemic in general?
Dr Vaishnavi: At home, my husband and our two cats took on the roles of being a support system. While my parents and sister didn’t live in the same city, we talked on a regular basis and I’m constantly worried about their health and safety, especially in these times. Apart from work, I stuck to my usual activities – tennis, playing the piano and working out. My cats weren’t particularly thrilled about me being home all day though, since I squished them at regular intervals.
How did you cope up with the research related challenges posed by the pandemic?
Dr Vaishnavi: Having to get used to a new normal, it took us a while to understand how we could resume research. It definitely wasn’t a matter of picking up where we left off. We had to recalibrate timelines and expectations too. I have to be honest, it wasn’t easy. Our lives had effectively come to a standstill. So it was alright for us to take the time to process the situation and figure out how to go forward. I took a break for a month and urged my students to do the same. I think I was and still am concerned for students’ futures in this uncertain time.
What were your strategies to keep yourself motivated work-wise, tackling deadlines and connectivity?
Dr Vaishnavi: We started having weekly online lab meetings. I presented in the first couple of meetings. ‘How to prepare a scientific manuscript’ and ‘Using Illustrator for scientific illustrations’ were the topics we discussed. The latter part was a hand-on tutorial. Students volunteered to do paper discussions. One of my students gave us a refresher course on statistical methods for our biology experiments which span the areas of live-cell imaging to study cytoskeleton and associated proteins. I then worked with students to help them prepare a couple of invited review articles that were due. But some days I had to force myself to do something: a feeling that a lot of people might have had during this pandemic, I believe. These were small steps, but the students were my motivation.
Did you have a ‘safety net’ to lean on, like a constant source of guidance and support during these times?
Dr Vaishnavi: I think I have been fortunate to have great academic mentors. These were not just senior academics, but also peers in the same career stage as mine. I have been in regular contact with them for support. More than anything, Professor Iva, my PhD advisor and Professor Sandhya, the co-chair of the Department of Biosciences and Engineering at IISc, are people I can talk to about anything. This is sometimes a cathartic experience that helps me gain some perspective.
The society always expects a disproportionate sacrifice from women; do you think the past few months demanded a sacrifice from you?
Dr Vaishnavi: My struggles during COVID-19 are different: I do not have caregiver responsibilities, which is something several women academics do. Women do have an undue burden when it comes to caregiving. In addition to this, women do spend more time on household chores. I think both of these are compounded to worsen the situation in COVID-19 times, which in turn has led to this population of academics being one of the worst affected in academia. I’ve been fortunate to not have to make any personal sacrifices, akin to what caregivers have to. Caregivers have had to carry out their responsibilities at the expense of their research because things like school and daycare closures mean that their young children have to be taken care of at home.
We recently came across a study that cites that women in STEM are publishing less as compared to their male counterparts during the pandemic. As a Principle Investigator (PI), do you think it is tougher for women investigators to receive regular grants or acceptance from journals, especially during the pandemic?
Dr Vaishnavi: It has sadly been similar during non-pandemic times. This pandemic has only exacerbated the inequity. Due to the issues like caregiving and household chores being primarily associated with women, they disproportionately have had to take a break from research activities, even grant applications and journal submissions from women authors have decreased. This will translate to fewer women being awarded a grant or getting published as well.
We already have this huge gender-gap in STEM, and with the pandemic worsening it, do you think this will have long-lasting effects on women’s participation in science?
Dr Vaishnavi: I’m afraid all the steps that have been taken in the past few years to achieve a semblance of equity may have been erased due to the pandemic. We might go back to the situation that prevailed maybe a decade ago unless steps are taken now to ensure equity at several levels.
What can the science industry do to be more accommodating for women in an attempt to reduce this blow?
Dr Vaishnavi: I can speak specifically for early-stage independent investigators in academia. A few things come to mind that could help accommodate the disproportionately disadvantaged are:
● Providing tenure-clock extensions to whoever needs it and asks for it;
● Funders could extend the duration of awards and fellowships to take time missed due to COVID-19 into account, and
● Institutes that assess academics for promotion need to make decisions based on achievements relative to opportunity for a methodical upliftment of women in academia.
Lastly, how are you planning for the uncertain future and what are your suggestions to the (aspiring) women scientists who’ll read this article?
Dr Vaishnavi: I think as clichéd as it sounds, we’re going to have to take it one day at a time. For aspiring women scientists, I’d say identify trusted mentors and friends who can help you through this process and ask for help when you need it.
Shreyas Gadge is a Physics undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. He’s a neuroscience enthusiast interested in poetry and science communication. He can be found on Instagram.
Vinita Mulay is an undergraduate student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. Her interests lie in Mathematics. She enjoys poetry and debating.
Shreyas and Vinita are the members of Manthan’s Editorial Board.