Posted by Shreyas Gadge, Vinita Mulay and Achuthan Raja Venkatesh
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 such as 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 Arunika Mukhopadhaya, who brings to light the dichotomy that women academics face and how it leads to underrepresentation. Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Biological Sciences at IISER Mohali. Her lab investigates immunology, mainly the immunobiology of host-pathogen interaction.
As a researcher and a young mother, how has the pandemic experience been for you?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: The pandemic is affecting everyone; however, the effect on women has been more pronounced because of caregiving and household responsibilities. In my opinion, both parents’ roles are important for their child’s development. Being a mother has never been a responsibility; it gives me joy in a way that I try to stay positive for my daughter in these unprecedented times. Unlike earlier times, the distinction between work and personal life is lost now. I am a researcher and have a responsibility towards my students, but then I am also a mother. There are multiple things to think about all at once. I think the biggest challenge for everyone during the pandemic has been the same – time management.
How do you view the process of mentorship and how have the dynamics of your research group changed during the pandemic?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: Mentorship, according to me, is a two-way process, where the mentor connects the dots that are brought in like raw material by the mentees. As a facilitator, I work towards making the students think like researchers and help them understand the ownership of their projects and the lab. That is, incorporate this line of thinking in the students that it’s their research. In a way, mentoring also provides me with intellectual stimulation.
With the onset of the pandemic, interactions in our group shifted online and I made sure I reached out to the group members to motivate them and help them interpret results alongside providing further directions to their work.
How crucial has the support from fellow academics been in these testing times?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: Support from friends and colleagues is critical, and this is not limited to fellow academics. Friends from all walks of life have been crucial. The interaction with fellow researchers is always insightful, you get to talk about grants and other work-related issues. However, sometimes you have problems completely unrelated to work and other friends help you come out of it. Things as simple as talking about movies, paintings, etc have helped me cope.
What is your take on the administrative support to researchers especially during the pandemic?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: The administration of IISER Mohali is supportive in a way that they put no added pressure in terms of working hours and days, this has also helped during the pandemic. The administration recognises the researchers’ responsibilities towards their lab group and provides a freedom to carry out research, as long as evaluation criteria and formal deadlines are met. Added to this, facilities like the creche and such have also provided a sense of security and support to women academics who are young mothers, in the past.
Considering that life sciences see a larger representation of women in comparison to physical and mathematical sciences, is it, therefore, easier for women to traverse their career trajectories in this field?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: While hiring rates in these departments are lesser, I am not certain that they are due to lack of applications or, for another reason. Our [IISER Mohali’s] Mathematics department has a considerable number of women, but the overall picture is changing incrementally. All things considered, even for the field of biology, underrepresentation of women is real and is compounded by the difficulty of taking a leave of absence (to tend to family) and choosing to return after some time. From grant applications to faculty candidatures, age is an important factor in academia and hiring committees are often agnostic to women’s needs in this regard. Therefore, it certainly isn’t easier for women in life sciences than in mathematical/physical sciences.
How can the stakeholders in this situation help improve the scenario for the better?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: Institutes, during their time which assess academics for promotion, need to make decisions based on achievements relative to opportunity, while providing a certain degree of freedom to carry out research. Furthermore, the age limits for applications to awards and such could be relaxed for women. This is in consideration of the overall underrepresentation of women especially in the later stages of their scientific career due to a general expectation of sacrifice – catering to the societal norms of motherhood and familial pressure.
To conclude, what advice would you give to the early-career women researchers reading this article?
Dr Arunika Mukhopadhaya: It is important for women to rely on their inner power, instead of allowing themselves to be whittled by society’s comments. Society, in its cynicism, brands successful women as family-ignoring while family-oriented persons are only met with pity. It is important for women to not be discouraged by society and believe in their strength.
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.
Achuthan Raja Venkatesh is a biology undergraduate student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. His interests lie in studying protein structure, and he enjoys debating and science communication pursuits on the side. He can be found on Twitter.