Posted on 31st October 2022
Promoting gender parity in science, one step at a time
By Sahana Sitaraman
A condensed matter physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, Prof Sumathi Rao has played an important role in making academic spaces in India more accessible to people of all identities.
As a young girl, Professor Dr Sumathi Rao was interested in anything that involved deductive logic. She spent her time doing puzzles and reading detective stories. Organically, she found herself gravitating towards the sciences and started reading popular science books and about scientists from across the world.
Dr Sumathi Rao with friends at IIT Mumbai which had a high number of women opting for physics that year.
While her parents were always encouraging of her interests and aspirations, she observed that the earlier generation did not share their views. Her mother was criticised and ridiculed for bringing up her two girls as ‘boys’, which basically meant they were allowed to study, voice their opinions, pursue higher education, without being forced to do societally mandated activities suitable for women.
Dr Rao’s grandmother was even bothered that her brother was not shown favouritism. Despite the pressure from the elders, and because she was never allowed to pursue her academic goals, Dr Rao’s mother always wanted her daughters to study as much they wanted. Observing these acts of discrimination at a young age was crucial in inspiring the important work Dr Rao did towards establishing gender parity in science, later in life.
After her undergraduate studies at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Dr Rao pursued a master’s degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. Though she was anxious and in tears during her shift to Mumbai, she was certain that going to IIT would put her on the path of becoming a scientist.
Women were (still are) a scarcity in the field of physics in India, a fact that was clear as day to anyone who stepped onto an IIT campus. However, Dr Rao was luckily part of a rare batch that had an equal gender ratio. Despite the selection committee being advised not to take any women as the only ladies’ hostel on campus was already full!
Thankfully, the committee did not comply. “They viewed the lack of accommodation as an administrative problem that the administration should solve and stuck to their merit-based admission process, ignoring the advisory,” writes Prof Prajval Shastri in Scroll.in.
Being surrounded by women with similar interests and ambitions was crucial in Dr Rao’s growth as a scientist.
The gender disparity in physics is the starkest among all STEM fields. A striking drop is seen in percentages of women winning the INSPIRE fellowship in physics (50%) to those enrolled in graduate school (30%) to those employed in the higher education sector (19% as of 2015). These numbers can be attributed to the roadblocks such as bias at the selection level and lack of access to elite universities, which has a domino effect on success later in life.
“We need to make sure enough women apply, get selected and are allowed to do their PhDs in good places, so that they learn well and get ahead to make it in the job market,” Dr Rao explains. The bias can also be tackled by holding gender sensitivity workshops and gender audits.
But from her personal experience, Dr Rao says, “As younger faces, who have working spouses and sisters, make it to the selection committees, they automatically tend to be more sensitive than the older generation, who are often patronising and insensitive.”
Dr Sumathi Rao and her family with eminent physicist Dr Ashoke Sen (third from left)
Dr Sumathi Rao with her PhD advisor at the State University of New York at Stonybrook
Rao herself faced gender bias from colleagues and students. She completed her PhD in High Energy Physics from the State University of New York at Stonybrook, the US, did postdocs from Fermilab and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and returned to India with her husband to accept a faculty job at the Institute of Physics in Bhubaneswar.
She soon realised that she was being accused of taking advantage of her husband’s fame, a well-known physicist, essentially belittling her work. With a desire to prove her mettle, Rao switched to condensed matter physics, a field completely new to her. She also took up a faculty position at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, where she worked for 25 years before retiring in December 2020.
Even here, biased opinions about her teaching abilities were also floating around — from students saying, “we do not think women are as good in physics as men” to some telling her that “being taught by a woman makes them feel they are back in kindergarten”.
Despite being surrounded by doubtful eyes and negative comments, Rao chased her passion, and was elected a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, Allahabad, in 2001, and of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 2017. She served as the Divisional Associate Editor for Physical Review Letters during 2018-2021.
The bias Dr Rao faced stoked the fire that was ignited long back. So naturally, when Prof Nandini Trivedi, who was a Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and was moving to the Ohio State University after a decade in Mumbai, asked Dr Rao to take her place as the representative from India at the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) working group on Women in Physics, she said “yes”. The group did tremendous work in identifying systemic discrimination against women in physics in many countries, not just India.
Dr Rao led the group in surveying Indian women in the field to determine the extent of bias and the ways to tackle it. Several initiatives were born from the consistent efforts of the IUPAP, and the parallel work done by women physicists.
In 2004, Dr Rohini Godbole brought out a report on the access Indian women had to scientific careers, inspiration for which was seeded by the IUPAP Women in Physics conferences. As they gained momentum, women physicists started organising events — notably the one headed by Neelima Gupte at ‘Statphys’ in 2004, and by Dr Pratibha Jolly in 2005 — to widely discuss gender disparity.
In 2005, the Indian Academy of Sciences formed the women in science panel, which led to the publication of a compilation of essays titled Lilavati’s daughters.
Based on their interactions and learnings over the years, the Indian contingent of Women in Physics came up with a set of recommendations in 2002, mostly with a focus on improving childcare leave policies and childcare facilities at institutes, besides pushing for the recognition, and tackling of sexual harassment.
Fifteen years later, the Gender in Physics Working Group (GIPWG) of the Indian Physics Association was set up in 2017, with Prof Prajval Shastri as its founding chair. It came up with the Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics and worked towards establishing equal representation of all genders in physics.
The charter comprises 29 well-thought-out recommendations, coming from the work done by the GIPWG, as well as feedback received at Pressing for Progress 2019, an interdisciplinary conference towards gender equity in physics in India. It advocates for gender-neutral work-life balance policies, transparency in the hiring process, inclusion of diversity officers in hiring committees and internal complaints committees, gender sensitization for everyone, revision of educational material to include gender-balanced role models and more. So far, the charter has been endorsed by over 350 physicists in India.
Spending her downtime with some close friends
With her students at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute
If there is one thing even a biologist like me remembers, it is that every action has an opposite reaction. Not everyone is on board with these initiatives, but one has to look for those who are on the fence and initiate dialogues with them.
As Nandini Trivedi aptly puts it: “In a material, there are magnetic moments, that are fluctuating randomly at high temperatures. When a magnetic field is applied, some of the magnetic moments start to align with the field. This forms a good analogy to understand changes in the STEM fields that bring in greater diversity and inclusivity. Initially many of the magnetic moments are turned away, just like people are turned away from the new ideas. But then bit by bit, a few people start flipping. And, you know, as few people flip, they also add to the field and become the impetus to change more minds.”
Dr Rao has been fundamental in laying the foundation for these initiatives. With a penchant for interacting with colleagues as well as students, she has helped establish new dialogues and engage people towards these goals. Her students rave about her mentoring skills and her approachability outside the lab. “When guiding students, I try to emulate the mentoring I received from Dr Rao,” says Dr Priyanka Mohan, a former postdoc in Dr Rao’s group.
While she is no longer an active member of the working group, she continues to support their activities and initiatives. She currently works as an emeritus scientist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, continuing to be a condensed matter physicist and a gender parity champion in science.