Women in science: Is the glass ceiling disappearing? (2004)

Nistads International Conference on

Women in science: Is the glass ceiling disappearing?

New Delhi, 8-10 March 2004

 

Welcome address

Rajesh Kochhar

Director, NISTADS, New Delhi.

 

Friends

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

rejoicing.

 

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.

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