Monday, January 1, 2018

A passion for pachyderms

Interested in the fields of behavioural ecology, conservation genetics and phylogeograpy, TNC Vidya has a special focus on the behaviour of social large mammals. With experience working on mammalian sociogenetics during her postdoctoral position at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, she is now studying the social organization of the Asian Elephant in Southern India. She spoke about STEM, her personal journey and her experiences so far to Harshavardhan Thyagarajan


Why science? What events/people/ideas influenced your decision to take up research, and what drew you to the field of ecology and behaviour?
I was attracted to the natural world every since I can remember. Reading Gerald Durrell and Salim Ali amongst others, I wanted to study birds or mammals by the time I was in middle school, although I did not really think of it as "science". I had not heard about research and was just fascinating that there were people who actually spent their lives watching or working with wildlife. I was also disappointed that human adults did not seem to be doing a very good job of preserving the natural world (unfortunately, I am also guilty of that now and worry about how disappointed today's children must be with us adults). The idea of working in the scientific field of ecology/behaviour/evolution came later, during my XI-XII std., B.Sc., and M.S. I have had several wonderful teachers in school and college. My ideas about science and the field of ecology/evolution/behaviour were greatly influenced by two excellent teachers in IISc (where I did my M.S.), Prof. R. Gadagkar and Prof. V. Nanjundiah, and by the wonderful experience I had during my first research project in Prof. Gadagkar's lab. Of course, one goes on modifying and honing one's understanding by subsequent interactions with various teachers and peers, during Ph.D., postdoc, and as faculty, and I am grateful to all these people, who are too many to list here. I must also say that I do not think of science as being superior to social science or the humanities. If I had not been able to work in ecology/evolution/behaviour, I would not have been desperate to carry out research in some other area of science just to be "in science". My backup options, at various points in time, included being a taxidermist, a vet, an English teacher, a journalist, a childrens' book illustrator, and a forest ranger.



Growing up, what did you feel about the field of science and technology? In your experience are there any prevalent cultural mindsets that deter women from envisioning themselves as pioneering scientists?
I did not really think about the "field of science and technology" versus other fields while growing up. I have been very lucky to have a very supportive immediate and extended family, who encouraged me to do what I wanted. My mother, especially, has endured many a sleepless night worrying about my safety initially (this was time without mobile phones and sparse and expensive landline connectivity). Although I have personally not been deterred from pursuing any field, I have seen that there are multiple prevalent cultural mindsets that deter women from envisioning themselves as pioneers, not just in science, but in most areas of work. Since women are "supposed to" look after the family (read cook and clean) and raise children, any external work that comes in the way is discouraged and jobs that can be worked around this are encouraged, if at all. The flip side to this is that there could be unrealistic expectations on boys and men who care may be scorned at, but that is another topic.

In your experience, is Science in India a sexist work environment? What is the nature of variance, depending on institutes, specialization and other such factors? Is this comparable to the field in other countries, in your experiences, or are there notable differences?
I think, in general, most work environments in India are sexist. We are, by and large, a deeply patriarchal society and this permeates science also. I have not seen many institutes and have not had to work in the university environment, which accounts for most of the science work environment in India, but can say for sure that patriarchy is a problem even in what are perceived to be the best institutes in the country. From my limited experience and talking with people, it appears that as women progress in their academic life, from being a student onwards, the challenges often become tougher because of the decreasing proportions of women at each level. Women faculty can have a tougher time being taken seriously by senior male colleagues in their institutes/universities than women Ph.D. students doing fieldwork have from being taken seriously by the lay people they interact with in the field, which says something really sad about the scientific academic system. I do not know if there are significant differences across countries or fields. I would like to say though that the biggest problem in terms of women in science would probably be that of girls having to drop out of school and college and so on (due to societal pressures and/or harassment). Those are far larger numbers than the numbers of women who have to face bad work environments as scientists. The ones who have had a really bad time are the ones we don't even see.

From the outside looking in, are there stereotypes that society projects on you as a woman scientist - with respect to work life balance and cultural expectations?
If, by society, you include the scientific community, then yes, definitely. For instance, there are many "irregular verbs" (sensu Bernard Woolley of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister) that apply. A male scientist might "make a forceful or powerful argument", while a female scientist is often "being difficult or shrill". An male scientist who decides not to marry is usually "being devoted to science" while a similar female scientist is often "a shrew" or has some problem. Similarly, one can be "hard working and committed to science" or "heartless" when one does not pay enough attention to children. There is the general expectation that women should remain quiet, agree with everything men say, not argue, etc. Of course there are exceptions, but I am talking about the majority here. If only lay people are included, I think perceptions depend partly on the extent to which people have to deal with women scientists. If the woman scientist is part of the family, the same biases may hold and she is often treated as a woman first (being expected to attend to the family) and then a scientist. On the other hand, many lay people may admire women scientists from afar because they are rarer and/or they perceive that they are doing challenging work.

Are there structural roadblocks for women in Science? If there are, what are some examples of the same and the nature of their impact?
For this question, some sub areas I'd like to discuss, but do not know very well:
- Are there any challenges in terms of a pay-gap for scientists over gender?
- Is there systemic under-representation in publication/conference key note talks?
- Is recruitment for posts a challenge for women, especially wrt the famous two body problem - do married women have a tougher time getting recruited to prestigious positions than their male counterparts?
- Maternity leave - is it provided adequately?

My perception is that there are more cultural roadblocks than structural roadblocks for women in science in India. Unlike the US, we do not have a pay-gap because of gender, and have much better maternity leave than in many countries. However, there is a lot to be desired in terms of hiring and treating women scientists. Although the Panel on Scientific Values of the Indian Academy of Sciences has come up with guidelines about not discriminating against those whose spouses are in the same institute while hiring, there are institutes that prefer not to hire such people, typically women (as the male spouse is usually older and more likely to have a job first). A woman is almost always asked about her marital status at least informally, if not during the interview, with the assumption that she will not take her job seriously if she is married or has children, or that she will quit her job if her husband is working in a different city. If two people are applying simultaneously, the woman may often settle for a worse job than the man, because of cultural norms. There is under-representation in awards and prestigious positions also, but I am not sure what structural changes can be made. It appears that a large part of this under-representation is because of the "old-boys club" and social networking that it is easier for male scientists to be part of. It is also possible that women are not able to give their best to their work because of day-to-day trivial harassment and discouragement they have to face at work, apart from family responsibilities. One structural change that I think should be made is to facilitate the re-entry of women into academics. At present, there are women scientist programmes that allow for women who have taken a break (typically, to raise children) to obtain a fellowship for a few years. However, this is perceived as a non-prestigious fellowship, and women with these fellowships seldom go on to become faculty. It is not clear to me why applicants of similar quality and with a similar number of years of experience cannot be treated on par, irrespective of having taken a break. Since taking a break is perceived as lack of commitment to science, women have to either choose between a job and children or postpone having children (which may not have the best consequences for the children). Similarly, child-care is a big concern. Although daycare centres have been mandated in some situations, the quality of daycare has prevented many women from working. Daycare centres at workplaces have also often taken only the number of women employees into account, a cultural bias translated into a structural roadblock.

Do institutes take casual sexism complaints seriously? While there are usually cells in place to weed out workplace sexism - do these come into action solely to deal with cases of severe molestation?
Usually, no. We, as a society, are very good at blaming the victim. One often hears of cases when even severe cases were suppressed. It appears that women are usually persuaded not to file any complaint.

Across the country, simple rules like hostel in-timings cause structural discrimination between the two genders. What is the impact of this on Indian Science, and what conversations do stakeholders need to engage in to address this?
I don't know what the overall impact would be on Indian Science. Individuals would react differently - some might want to overcome such a problem and still do science, others might be dissuaded. However, gender-based discrimination in hostel rules is not unique to science, and I don't think one should have to show that it would affect science (or, indeed, any other subject) in order to put an end to such regressive rules.

As a behavioural ecologist, you and your lab members spend plenty of time in the field. Are there prevalent stereotypes against women in field science?
Based on small sample sizes, I feel that certain traits are over-represented amongst people who do fieldwork. For instance, such people are likely to enjoy the outdoors, be adventurous, and be more willing to take risks, including by breaking societal stereotypes (since, even for men, fieldwork is not usually considered prestigious by society). Given these traits in male and female fieldworkers, I think women doing fieldwork often do have some support from their male compatriots. They probably find more discrimination back in their universities or in formal meetings rather than in the field itself.
I would also like to add that, in India, there are biases against organismal biologists (who study ecology/evolution/behaviour) by many reductionist biologists, who wield much more power, but that is not restricted to women organismal biologists. For many of us in organismal biology, that is almost as big a bias we face routinely as the bias against women in academics in general.

What systemic interventions have helped women in Indian Science (or outside, if something notable comes to mind) - and what structures do you feel we need to implement in order to create an inclusive and conducive system?
I don't know enough to say anything about the first. As I already mentioned above, I think facilitating the re-entry of women into permanent jobs and better daycare are necessary. However, I think social change is really required to have a more inclusive system; it will not be possible with structural change alone.