Nistads International Conference on
Women in science: Is the glass ceiling disappearing?
New Delhi, 8-10 March 2004
Director, NISTADS, New Delhi.
It is a matter of great pleasure and honour for me to welcome you to this
conference. Today is international women’s day. Which is a sure sign that some
thing is seriously wrong. When you have to keep a day for some cause, quite
obviously the cause has languished for centuries.
Women constitute 50% of world’s population. Yet, at least in India,
number of women in the Parliament, in higher education and professions is
pegged down at 10-15%, with the numbers falling sharply as you move up the
hierarchical ladder etc. Our Institute is an exception to this 10-15% rule. About
one third of our faculty is female. That is because science policy is considered to
be a soft subject!
You have assembled here to discuss women in science today. Let me
take you back 400 years to the pre-history of modern science. Till then
knowledge had laid in libraries and archives and in the past. Knowledge would
now be looked for in the fields, in the open, in future. Prophet of this new age
was Francis Bacon, otherwise a disgraced judge and politician. In his work
significantly tilted Masculine Birth of Time, Bacon declared:
“I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to
bind her to your service and make her your slave”.
Nature was not to be explored but domineered. And the analogy came
from enslavement of women and children.
Things have improved since Bacon’s time. The fact that we are talking
about a glass ceiling rather than a stone wall is encouraging. Sophistry and
hypocrisy have their virtue. They imply recognition of an ideal, a goal, which
should not be openly challenged, but quietly subverted. Subversion makes it the
more difficult to recognize the problem and thus permits its perpetuation.
Very often, women are socially brainwashed into subordinating their
intellect, talent, skills and aspirations to their role as mother, wife and daughterin-
law. Some of them who still manage to succeed discover that they can only
go that far and no farther.
In 1953 Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit was elected the first ever woman
president of United Nations General Assembly. A reporter complimented her on
her beautiful sari. She retorted: Did you compliment my predecessor on the
colour of his tie? In those early days, men could afford to be patronizing. Now,
they are scared.
A lot remains to be done. Yet, in the last very many centuries, at least in
India, it is the best time to be born a woman, provided you can survive female
foeticide and infanticide. The catchment area for women has widened. There
has been a rise in enrolment in schools, colleges and employment. More and
more avenues hitherto the preserve of men have opened up. But as I said earlier
nowhere do women constitute 50% of the numbers.
Very often press and media unwittingly harm women’s cause. Every time
school results are declared, there is a screaming headline: Girls outshine boys.
Girls consistently perform better than boys at school level. This gives a false
sense of satisfaction. The real test would be if the number of boys and girls in a
classroom were the same. As things stand, boys are invariably sent to school,
while only those girls go to school that are better motivated. Therefore, better
performance by girls is a selection effect, a matter of concern rather than
There are very few women at the top. Does their conduct become erratic
when they occupy the top slot? Do they become over-aggressive in the fear that
their failure will condemn half the humanity? The problem can be placed in a
wider context. All groups that have historically remained marginalized – women
the world over; blacks in Africa and USA; hierarchically lower and middling
castes in India have to go through a self-conscious transitional stage on their
journey upwards. These days timescales have become so short, and cultures
so impatient that nobody seems to have any time for any adjustments. If you
pause, you will be run over. How is the transitional stage to be managed?
We are talking about glass ceiling. May be a better term would be
ceilings, in plural and without a qualifier. While some prejudices are common
throughout the world, surely there are culture-specific obstacles, obstructions,
prejudices, hostilities, roadblocks, and burnt bridges in the paths of women. The
purpose of this Conference is to provide a forum for a cross-cultural women’s
perspective on the issues concerning women.
I am conscious of the fact that all said I belong to that half of the species
which is the architect of the glass ceiling in the first place. Indeed, if the
Director’s official welcome address was being read by a woman, there would
probably be no need for organizing such conferences.