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Year : 2011  |  Volume : 134  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 239-241

Vidushi - The Indian women in science & technology

Dangoria Charitable Trust, 211, Sri Dattasai Apartments, RTC Cross Roads, Hyderabad 500 020, India

Date of Web Publication10-Sep-2011

Correspondence Address:
Mahtab S Bamji
Dangoria Charitable Trust, 211, Sri Dattasai Apartments, RTC Cross Roads, Hyderabad 500 020
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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How to cite this article:
Bamji MS. Vidushi - The Indian women in science & technology. Indian J Med Res 2011;134:239-41

How to cite this URL:
Bamji MS. Vidushi - The Indian women in science & technology. Indian J Med Res [serial online] 2011 [cited 2020 May 28];134:239-41. Available from:

(National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata) 2010. 171 pages. Price: not mentioned.

ISBN 978-81-909826-2-7

The year 2001 was a watershed in time for women in India including women in science. It was declared by the Government of India as Women's Empowerment Year. The purpose was "to initiate and accelerate action to improve access to and control of resources by women; so that they can take their rightful place in the mainstream of nation's social, cultural, scientific and economic arena. Its objective was also to create and raise large-scale awareness of all women's issues with the active participation and involvement of all women and men, and thus build a just, equal and prosperous society in this 21 st century". While after 10 years the above objectives remain unfulfilled and gender disparities as well as malecentric mindset persist, the thought process has started and in the past decade women in science have started receiving attention. A landmark exhibition: Leelavati - the Indian Women in Science was developed in 2001, by the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) to flag off attention to women in science. The exhibition "depicted the status of Indian Women in Science and Technology in different historical periods and showcased the success of Indian women in the field of Science and Technology within the limitations of the existing socio-economic realities"

In the following year 2002, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi, constituted a committee to examine Indian women's access to and retention in scientific careers. INSA report on "Science Career for Indian Women" was published in 2004. It examined the `Current status of study and practice of science by Indian women' from secondary data and `Factors influencing science career for Indian women' from a study done by the Centre for women's studies, SNDT University, Mumbai. Based on the findings, a set of recommendations was made to improve the situation. By way of follow up, the Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, constituted a National Task Force for Women in Science under the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The report entitled "Evaluation and Enhancing Women's Participation in Scientific and Technological Research: The Indian Initiatives" released in December 2010, further examined the status of women in science (which had not changed substantially from the earlier INSA Report), and made more specific and detailed recommendations. Both the Reports showed that the proverbial glass ceiling becomes harder at the level of practicing science and recognition than at the level of studying science, and support systems and programmes are needed to ensure that women who qualify in science and technology can pursue a career in science.

Despite the double or triple burden that women have to face, there are women who have succeeded in building successful careers in Science and Technology. The Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, has published a delightful book- `Leelavathi's daughters' where successful women in science narrate their life experiences and struggle to break the glass ceiling.

For the exhibition, the NCSM had to do painstaking research not only to get the stories but also the photographs of women in science by digging into archives. Now, a decade later, NCSM has brought out a book, Vidushi -The Indian women in science and technology. The above cited reports and others listed in the bibliography were used as resource material, to update the status data and bio-sketches. Interesting historical perspective besides the sociological dimension of gendered science makes this book rather unique. The name `Vidushi' is intriguing and not explained in the book. By the authors' own admission, the anthology is not `exhaustive' but only `indicative'. Unfortunately some important women scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs are missing and some of the biographies are outdated. Little effort in contacting the scientists who are not featured in the book `Leelavati's daughters, to get their updated bio-data and search beyond the obvious would have greatly increased the value of the book.

The book has 15 chapters starting with an overview of `Indian women in science' and ending with a `bibliography'. The chapter on `Women's education in ancient and medieval India' is fascinating. Ancient India had famous women scholars like Leelavati, - a mathematician daughter of Bhaskara II, (1150 AD), Gargi- the natural philosopher, Khana- the astronomer and many others. In the Vedic period, girls, particularly those from upper classes received education. They could read and write and apart from Vedas, some of them specialised in different branches of natural philosophy. The age at marriage was 16-18 years. Brahmavadinis composed hymns. Marriage for Brahmavadinis was allowed. Thus women could lead scholarly as well as family life. Though early Buddhism accepted highest goals of `nibhana' for women, and women could become monks, there was stereotyping of women's role as being submissive and obedient whose life revolved around her husband and sons. Nevertheless Buddhism encouraged egalitarian social order. An unfortunate decline in the social status of women occurred during 9 th -10 th century, with decline in Buddhism and ascent of orthodox Hinduism. The age of consent and marriage for girls was lowered to nine and the girls lost the opportunity to get basic education. The Muslim invasion in 12 th -13 th century made things worse by denying education to girls.

Chapters on `Beginning of enlightenment' and `Women's education in modern India', give a historical perspective of women's struggle to get educated and the role of reformists. At the beginning of the 19 th century, social reforms, aided by western education, and great reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Ray, Pt. Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Justiuce M.G. Ranade, Maharishi Karve, Biresalingam Pantulu and others like Anne Besant and Christian missionaries, opened the doors to women's education. Women's educational institutions like the Bethune school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and a girl's school established by Jyotiba Phule in Pune around 1849 facilitated the process. In 20 th century, women's education spread fast and women started even going abroad for education. Kadambini Basu and Chandramukmhi Basu were the first women graduates in the British Empire.

Educational graph of India increased exponentially in the 20 th century with numerous medical and engineering colleges and other institutions of higher learning, and women did get a small piece of that pie. Women scientists made their presence felt not only in biological sciences where they seem to gravitate, but also in chemistry, physics, mathematics and technology. Despite all this, gender gap persists, particularly at higher levels of academic excellence and recognition.

The book quotes the `missing women' among Noble laureates, and the struggle that women scientists even in developed countries had to go through to get accepted and recognised. Often work done by women was used by men who even got Noble prize without acknowledging the contribution of their women colleagues. The famous case is that of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray pictures of DNA gave the idea of double helix structure for DNA in the minds of Watson and Craig. Men got the Noble prize and the lady died unsung.

Despite the world famous universities during the Buddhist times, elementary education in India has languished. In most countries including developing countries like Sri Lanka, gender gap in education comes after high school. In India on the other hand, gender gap begins from primary school and persists. Yet, higher education in India is believed to be one of the best in the world. There have been government initiatives to promote education for women. Data on female literacy given in the book is from the 2001 census and may not reflect the present status.

The chapter on `Pathfinders' gives biographical sketches of some women from different disciplines of science mostly - biological sciences. Women however, have done well even in disciplines like physics, and mathematics. Observation suggests that today women are getting attracted to formerly poorly represented disciplines like engineering and agriculture/veterinary sciences, particularly in the southern States. Separate chapters deal with `Women medical pioneers' (the most densely represented profession for women) and women in mathematics, engineering and information technology. Despite overall educational backwardness in India, doors of medical education for women were opened in India when the subject was still debated in Europe. The historical perspective gives touching insight into women's struggle. Kadambini Basu (Ganguly) was the first Indian woman to graduate in medicine in 1883. Anandibai Jolshi (1865-1887), was encouraged by her husband to study and even go to US to study medicine. But later her husband's changed attitude (mercurial, and suspicious behaviour) made her stay difficult. She was the first Indian woman to graduate from Women's medical college in Philadelphia. Before she could take up her appointment at the Albert Edward Hospital, in Kohlapur, she died at a young age.

The chapter on `Career in science' attempts to give some statistics from the earlier cited reports. Continuous updating of data on gender and science and technology is one of the recommendations in the DST Report. Women's feelings about the problems faced and what needs to be done are also expressed. The chapter on `Scientific difference and gender', demolishes the myth of any genetic basis for gendered science. Peter Goodfellow wrote "The random genetic difference between two humans are 3000 times greater than the genetic differences between men and women and yet our society imposes biological destiny on women because of this infinitesimal difference". Apart from social support for women to pursue career in science, a change in attitude is the need of the hour. Unless that happens, women will continue to be sidelined. The entire last chapter entitled `The perspective of an Indian woman scientist' is devoted to a talk given by one woman scientist, Prof. Anita Mehta, at UNESCO, Paris, for a conference on `Science and human rights'. It echoes the feelings of most women in science.

It is unfortunate that gender bias occurs even in a field like science, which is supposed to be objective and free of prejudices. Fortunately, winds of change are blowing - slowly but surely.


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