The School of Physics of the University of Hyderabad hosted 240 physicists, social scientists and educationists for three days during 19-21 September, 2019 to bridge disciplinary divides and debate the long-standing question as to why there is a persistent gender gap in the physics profession in India.
The conference, titled ‘Pressing for Progress 2019: An IPA National Conference towards Gender Equity in Physics’, was driven by the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association, chaired by Professor Prajval Shastri. The TIFR (Center for Interdisciplinary Sciences) partnered in the organisation of the conference.
At the Ice-breaker on the evening before the conference, 18 September, Professor Megan Urry, astrophysicist and Director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, gave a talk on What I Love (and Don’t) About Physics. She then launched the book 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science, written by Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Dogra – a book written for ages 10 and up with stories of the questions that fascinate 31 Indian women scientists. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad said that this conference came at a fortuitous moment when the University had just been declared “An Institute of Excellence”. To sustain the excellence label gender equity in all the sciences, and Physics, in particular was essential. He noted that in the recent past many heads and deans of schools had been women.
On Thursday, 19 September 2019, welcoming the gathering, Professor Bindu Bambah, who not only led the local organising committee of the conference, but is also one of the first practising Indian physicists to collaborate with social scientists in investigating the gender gap question said, that compromising on gender diversity is severely limiting excellence in physics. She noted that women intellectuals in India have been “pressing for progress” since ancient times as she narrated the dialogue between Gargi and Yajnavalkya. Gargi kept questioning Yajnavalkya on the nature of the universe until yajnavalkya reprimanded her to stop questioning or there would be dire consequences. She urged the younger generation to “unleash the Gargi in you.”
The conference was inaugurated by the Vice-President of the Indian Physics Association, Dr. S.M. Yusuf, physicist from BARC, who lauded the efforts of the Gender in Physics Working Group of the IPA towards promoting gender equity in physics. Presiding over the inaugural, the Pro Vice-Chancellor traced the early beginnings that the university had made in this regard with the launching of the school of gender studies with natural scientists as founding members. Professor Prajval Shastri pointed out that the fraction of women among PhDs in physics employed in higher education in India is about 20% which is already skewed. But the fraction in elite institutions, leadership positions and in honour lists, and even in the authorship of physics articles in the bulletin of the IPA, plummets much further. Furthermore, the gender gap in the physics discipline is among the largest in any scientific discipline, which points to physics being highly gendered in its practice, despite professing to be an objective science, which is why this conference was needed. Prof. Ram Ramaswamy, former VC, addressed the gathering and recalled how the publishing of the book “Lilavati’s Daughters” was a watershed moment in gender equity in science. It gave Indian women a set of role models to emulate and be inspired by.
Professor Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, urged the participants to come up with actionable recommendations for the profession. K Vijayraghavan, the Principal Scientific Adviser gave the keynote address in the inaugural session over internet video link. He said that he was very pleased that a unique conference of this sort was being organised at the University. He hoped that the deliberations at the conference would lead to a more gender equitable future not only in physics, but other science disciplines as well.
The inaugural session was compered by Professor Jayeeta Lahiri. Dr. Soma Sanyal gave the vote of thanks.
Professor Bimla Buti, plasma physicist, mentor extraordinaire and inspiration to scores of physicists women and men alike, was felicitated at the conference for a life-time of accomplishments. She was the first woman physicist who became a fellow of INSA and TWAS. She recounted her 86 years of struggle to be accepted as a physicist and attributed it to her mentors Prof. S. Chandrasekhar (Nobel Laureate) and Prof. Vikram Sarabhai who hired her to set up the plasma physics group at Physical Research laboratory. Prof. A.K Bhatnagar, erstwhile Vice Chancellor of Uoh, presented her with a shawl and memento. Since it was also her birthday cake was cut by her and enjoyed by the participants.
Pressing for Progress 2019 had three keynote physics talks including one on quantum information Aditi De, the first woman Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardee in physics, which is the highest Indian award for science. Prof. De illustrated how the transition from classical to quantum information would speed up all computational processes such as prime factorisation. The real time calculations could be done in polynomial rather than exponential time. Quantum mechanics could also ensure more secure cryptography.
A panel consisting of both mid-career and senior physicists, and those in leadership roles, discussed the question ‘The Gender Gap in Physics: Whose Problem is It?’ Anchor Pratibha Jolly, brought to the fore the importance of physicists across the profession, i.e., research scientists to high school teachers, engaging together to improve the profession. The panel advocated both administrative and cultural interventions that must include the leadership of institutions, as well as a rethinking of the processes currently in place to deal with the malaise of sexual harassment. The active participation by a very significant fraction of men, clearly showed an acknowledgement that mitigating the gender gap requires everyone to take responsibility. A cogent point was made by Vani Vemparala – the presence of a small cadre of highly competent, high-profile women scientists together with other women scientists who would have possibly been ‘below’ some bar, as a peculiar characteristic of the Indian situation. Her point was the absence of a ‘middle-class’ of women scientists who one might look to as examples of solid scientific ability coupled with actually ‘having a life’.
About thirty women physicists from all over the country presented talks on their research in four parallel physics sessions ranging from planetary physics to biophysics. They demonstrated a large and wide variety of talent, although this is only a sliver of what is available country-wide. For the first time, physicists, educationists, social scientists and diversity experts shared a common space to deliberate on Different Angles on Promoting Gender Equity. An innovative component of the conference was the opportunity to participate in immersive, process-based workshops that were designed to build capabilities in understanding gender inequity. Three films encapsulating the theme of the conference, viz., Hidden Figures, Agora and Marie Curie were also screened. Recommendations made at the conference included: the importance of good child care facilities (both in institutions as well as in conferences), the need for institutions to address the two-body problem by encouraging, wherever possible, a spousal hire as well, the explicit removal of age-limits for first appointments of women, adjusting for time spent on parental responsibilities by extending tenure and other professional clocks, the removal of gendered and paternalistic language wherever possible and the crucial need for young girls to have role models. Specifically on the issue of harassment, the very grey area between plain, vanilla harassment and sexual harassment seems to be hard to address.
Three workshops that were organized: The first was “Gender Equity: Barriers, Bridges & Stepping Stones” (Bhanumathy Vasudev & Payal Gupta) and the second was “Understanding Sexual Harassment Dynamics” (Suneetha Achyutha, Tejaswini Madabhushi and Vasudha Nagaraj. The third was Exploring Personal Agency Power: Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Daily Living (Madhu Shukla Swasthika Ramamurthy) that used theatre methodology.
Strengthening the inter-disciplinarily framework of the conference was a dance drama, Avidhrta (The Unstoppable), composed and choreographed especially for the conference encapsulating its theme, by Lalitha Sindhuri, PhD student of dance in the Sarojini Naidu School of performing arts of the university. The astoundingly creative and innovative performance wove the stories of Marie Curie, Malala Yusufzai, J K Rowling and Mary Kom into the composition, which was rendered in the classical Kuchipudi style with live music ensemble from the school, and mesmerized the audience.
Over a third of the participants were men and about half were from the younger generation. About half the participants were faculty and students from our universities and colleges.
The inter-disciplinary conference is primarily supported by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, with additional funding support from the Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, Microsoft, Fujitsu Pvt. Ltd and Horizon, Pvt. Ltd, Hyderabad.
For the first time, physicists, educationists, social scientists and diversity experts shared a common space to deliberate on Different Angles on Promoting Gender Equity. An innovative component of the conference was the opportunity to participate in immersive, process-based workshops that were designed to build capabilities in understanding gender inequity.