Scientism, familism and women scientists: V Sujatha

Guest Post by V. SUJATHA

That the first woman to win the Fields Medal for mathematics in 2014 was an Iranian is important to note. Not only because Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman to make it in the field of mathematics which is considered to be a male bastion[1], but also because her Persian background deserves some attention. There are certain enabling factors in Eastern cultures that facilitate women excel in the hard sciences, in spite of entrenched patriarchy. The point is not that everything is great in the East versus the West, but that cultural stereotypes about women are not homogenous; they vary from culture to culture and produce gender asymmetries with different effects. This is a sociologist’s
delight; let me explain.

During a literature survey in sociology of science, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the figures on women’s entry and achievements in science and technology education (S&T) in the global south were not only not bad, but were better than the countries in the Anglo-Saxon world that offered better civil liberties for women (Sujatha 2015). While there were fewer women in apex positions in the S&T sector and even lesser numbers to receive prestigious awards everywhere in the world, it is a fact that women from erstwhile socialist countries and from Asian and Latin American societies enrolled in larger numbers in science and technology courses and also made it higher in the career ladder in S&T than their counterparts in western Europe and North America.  The literature on women in science however, attributed everything to the ‘glass ceiling effect’ i.e., soft variables like gender bias in the organisational processes. I do not deny it, but it seems to me that this does not explain why the glass ceiling worked differently in some countries.

The entry of women in science and technology fields and subsequent upward mobility in their career to reach tenured positions is higher in Brazil, in the Catholic countries of Europe and Asian countries like India. The old socialist nations of East Europe also have a good record in this count. According to the UNESCO statistical handbook (1983), there was larger percentage of women in science and math in Muslim majority Malaysia than in the UK as early as the eighties.  In Germany, for instance,  the academic community is said to be the most male-dominated among the European nations and the percentage of women full professors even in a women-friendly field like medicine was 6% (Fuchs et al 2001) and women’s enrolments in S&T was stagnant from 1960-90s. In France, the proportion of women researchers in the 1300 laboratories run by CNRS since its inception in 1946 has been constant at 31.2% were till 2004 (de Cheveigne 2009). In countries like India, the trend is opposite: rapid increases in women completing doctoral degrees in the last three decades. Hargittai (2015) finds that 36% PhDs in science and technology are earned by women in India. In engineering degrees the enrolment in engineering Masters is almost same for men and women and the male-female student ratio is 1.96 in India and in the US the proportion of female students to male is 4.96.

It is common knowledge that a host of organisational factors like access to funding for laboratory research and networking with peers do determine achievements in the laboratory sciences and women often get excluded from these networks. But the question as to why women in the Anglo-Saxon world did not fare well in fields like theoretical physics and math in which funding is not the critical factor, becomes important if we compare the figures with Asian women in the same fields.  If we take math and theoretical physics as a test case for women’s participation in science and compare figures round the world, the countries in the global south show better results. In fact the countries with an excellent track record for liberties and rights of women, like Sweden, Germany, UK and the US have the poorest record of women in math and physics, lower than the EU average (SHE Figures 2010) and that of Turkey, Spain and Italy (Table- 2 below). In Asia, especially in India, greater numbers of women enrol for math and physics courses and also complete their research degrees in these subjects and the proportion of women full professors in math is equal or better than Sweden and Germany. If we consider the highest award for scientific research in India, namely the Bhatnagar award, two women have won the Bhatnagar award for math as early as 1987 followed by another in 2004 though the percentage of women who were given the Bhatnagar award is not very high.

Table -1 Women Ph.Ds in the sciences to full professors (SHE figures 2010)

Country PhD Full professors
EU 40% 13.7%
UK 38% 9%
Sweden 41% 14.3%
Germany 38% 9.8%
Italy 42% 19.8%
Portugal 58% 33.2%
Turkey 49% 25.7%


Table -2 Women full professors in mathematics in Europe (2005)

Country Percentage of full professors in Math
Germany 6.8%
France 10.3%
UK 2.8%
Sweden 4.2%
Portugal 32.1%
Italy 15.1%
Spain 12.9%


Percentage of full professors in science and math in India (Inter-Academy Panel Report 2016)

Institution Percentage
IISc Bangalore












10% (18.2% in Math)




In 3 out of 8 national science laboratories in India, women constituted 34, 37 and 56% of lecturers and readers however, the percentage of women receiving the Bhatnagar award and directorship of institutes is low.

Table -3 Women scientists in the public sector

Organisation Percentage of women
CSIR 16.5%
DSE 20.8%
DAE 15.0%
DBT 27.4%
ICMR 29.0%
DRDO 14.0%
ICAR 14.3%

Organisational factors and women’s career mobility

It is true that organisational factors like fixed and standard criterion for recruitment and promotion in the Indian universities make a positive difference for women, SC and ST candidates in the science and technology sector, compared to settings like the US where the judgment of the selection committees play a greater role in fixing tenure and salary. Yet the levels and patterns of upward mobility of women in S&T fields across diverse organisational settings in the global south consistently shows better achievement than in the global north.    Besides it is found that Asian engineers draw better salaries and get higher positions in the US than American women engineers (Schiebinger 1999). Maryam’s example in the case of winning the coveted Fields Medal in math is yet another instance of Asian women achieving something in the North American context that was not possible for the American women. The National Science Board in America found that, ‘31 percent of Asian American and 16 percent of white high school graduates completed calculus, compared with 6 percent and 7 percent of African American and Hispanic high school graduates, respectively. Further, one-quarter of Asian American and one-tenth of white high school graduates took either the AP or International Baccalaureate exam in calculus, compared with just 3.2 percent of African American and 5.6 percent of Hispanic graduates (National Science Board, 2008)[2]’. Besides, the same study found that a lower percentage of white women’s ( 2.2%) showed intent to pursue math than all other ethnic groups, while  Asian women had the highest percentage (4.6%) with intent to pursue math.

It is not that there are no setbacks for women in the global south, but my argument is that the pattern is different. Unlike a leaky pipeline in which there are barriers to entry and retention of women in the career ladder at every level leading to dropouts at school final, post graduation, doctoral degree, post doc, until a miniscule percentage of women become full professors, in India the drop put rate for women scientists is nearly zero. But there is a ‘post doctoral out flux’ or stagnation mid-career for women who have reached tenured positions, in the words of the physicist Rohini Godbole (Chandra and Godbole 2009); women seem to give up careers for motherhood duties in their mid–forties. All the different data bases reflect this trend. So my argument is that patterns of asymmetry vary and cannot all be lumped together as leaky pipeline as the glass ceiling also has a cultural dynamic.

While the women in premier institutions in India are generally mostly from the upper castes, the women from the socially disadvantaged sections are entering science and technology sector in a big way as enrolments in engineering colleges show. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, women constitute 45-65% of the strength of engineering courses. While the need for stable jobs among upwardly mobile sections is a reason for women’s entry in engineering and they are concentrated in fewer technological specialisations, it is still important to note that the first generation learners do not feel any barrier in entering a technological field because in Sweden, Germany and UK, even enrolment of women in engineering is quite low and it is not showing much improvement despite favourable state policies and quotas.

How do we explain this? My contention is that the barriers to women’s achievement in the scientifically most advanced countries stems from science itself. That is, the findings of biology and genetics about the cognitive inability of women to think rationally and to engage in abstract mathematical thinking lie at the bottom of the entrenched  bias amongst scientists in organisations and is also very much part of the self-perception of women. Numerous studies on the size of women’s brain, their hormonal set up, reproductive processes and the effect on emotional make up of women and their cognitive performance have been conducted in the biological sciences over the years and findings are often articulated by Nobel laureates and university heads like Larry Summers with confidence (and countered by feminists). In the US, thousands of psychometric tests for mathematical inclination among school children and youngsters indicate lower aptitude among women. Excessive reliance on positivistic and numerical measurement of aptitude is common in the public discourses and popular writings in countries like the US and the UK creating and sustaining an ethos of what I refer to as ‘entrenched scientism,’ that is also internalised by women very early in their life culminating self ejection in their career. In short, motherhood and reproductive functions are seen as determining women’s innate ability and aptitude for the hard sciences. As biology is the only scientific paradigm for understanding gender differences, criticisms have to either propose an alternate hypothesis for biological basis of gender performance that is not misogynist or show how socialisation causes the differences in aptitude. Either way there is no escape from the biological determinism and the biological basis of life looms large in western public discourses on gender. This is the trap of scientism. Feminist science studies in the west have over the years tried to counter biologism examining every aspect of women’s performance in S&T and showing how context matters. But white feminist theories are also characterised by an intensive focus on the body and sexuality to the point of using metaphors of anatomical difference between man and woman in their title, that also draw upon biologism.  It seems that the critique of biological determinism is unable to go far from it.

By contrast, studies on women scientists and technologists in India over the years show that bias against their cognitive ability to do math or science was not the problem.  Godbole observes that, ‘we dont seem to have our Larry Summers’ and explains that ‘atleast in the Indian academia women are not perceived as being incapable of intellectual attainment in mathematics or science (many university prize winners in science are women)’. But the problem lies elsewhere.

As early as the colonial period, the concern about British women pursuing medical education was whether their hormonal system will allow them to understand anatomy, whereas the corresponding concern in India was whether the common classroom in colleges will lead women students to breach caste and pollution rules. Indian women scientists do not report adverse experiences or bullying in school or college about aptitude or cognitive capability. Rather the worry was that the women could outwit men if given a chance and hence have to be contained to attend to familial roles.  Abha Sur talks about Sunanda, the woman physicist under the supervision of the Nobel Laureate C.V.Raman whose suicide was shrouded in mystery and silence. After completion of her PhD and successful admission into a post doc programme in Sweden, Sunanda seems to have faced censure for transgression of caste or familial rules the details of which are not available.  Several studies on women scientists repeatedly point to the fact that a greater proportion of women scientists in India are married and have children and they are married to men who are equally or more qualified than themselves and in their interviews do not fail to mention support from spouse and parents-in law in their career pursuits (Krishnaraj 1991).  In fact, in her biographical collection of 40 women scientists around the world, Hargittai (2015) highlights how the family was so central a theme in India to women scientist’s perception of themselves.  Higher education and intellectual achievements of upper caste women bring greater prestige to the family and this is true of all family centred societies in Asia (with the exception of Japan) and Europe. While family protects women professionals from the vagaries of the labour market and provides childcare for women professionals, loyalty to family and the need to attend to grown up children persuades them to slow down mid career.   So it is what I would like to call, ‘familism,’ – a value stemming from the centrality of the family as an institution in tiding through the global economy, that is the barrier here. Even in the case of women in sports who made it to the Olympics from Haryana, we find that the honour of the family/village/caste is a crucial factor in motivating women to participate in the race.

The most exciting development is that lately there are more and more women team leaders in technology missions of government science institutes in India who have reached great heights mid-career. About 30% project heads in DRDO, ISRO and DOS are women engineers/technologists[3]. In 2011, the launch and deployment of the GSAT-12 a communication satellite, was carried out by women scientists at ISRO with project director T.K. Anuradha, mission director Pramodha Hegde and operations director Anuradha Prakasham. In 2012, N. Valarmathi headed the launch of RISAT-1, a radar imaging satellite in a small Tamil Nadu town of Ariyalur, where she spent her childhood.  Tessy Thomas, scientist who headed the Agni-V Programme, an intercontinental ballistic missile is among the recognized women scientists in the country.

Women technologists in reputed missions like Mass Orbiter Mission (MOM) and other satellite and rocket missions report that they are deeply involved because it is a national cause they are contributing to. We have enough feminist writing in Asia to show that nationalism as movement and as a social value has been a crucial moving factor for women to enter the public sphere in a way that is not true of the Anglo-Saxon world. Interviews of mission leader women are even more insightful for they invoke family values and more often than not liken launching a satellite to delivering a baby.  So it seems that in India, reproductive functions are not only not a barrier to a technological career as it would be in the US, UK, or Sweden, but a positive metaphor for hard core technology projects that we could say that they are ‘mothering a satellite’. Viewing the nation as an extension of the family is understandable in this culture. Hence familism and its variant nationalism could be motivating forces for achievement in the upper rungs though they could also produce adverse effects that we are only too aware of.

The most remarkable thing in this regard is yet to be noticed. Biographies and narratives of women scientists for the past two centuries show that everywhere in the world women scientists who make it into modern science are mostly from urban background and from educated families. While there are several first generation learners among men, women seem to need a higher starting point than men to even enter S&T fields. This trend has not reversed much in the past decades; in Brazil and in some formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe, it is possible to find a few women scientists and technologists from the working classes. It is important also to note that the team members that worked on the acclaimed the Mass Orbiter Mission in India were mostly from state universities and institutions.

In the light of these facts, the entry of SC, ST women in engineering and science education in India as revealed by statistics in many states is an important development. It is one thing that these women who flock engineering colleges are not able continue their education, instead have to take up jobs to earn for their family.  Yet the fact that they see no problem in taking up a career in technology as first generation learners is notable. Unlike women from well placed families, the first generation women engineers may not always have the advantage of cultural capital or familial and spousal support unless they marry other professionals. Honour killings over love marriages indicate that the support may not always be available. It is high time that the figures about scheduled caste and tribe candidates in S&T sector went beyond the studies on reservation in the higher education sector.  It warrants serious attention from feminist science studies in India,  to see how the women engineers from the rural hinterland are dealing with the hard sciences and what will interest them if they have an opportunity to go into higher education and research, because it is very rare to find first generation learners from rural background among women scientists and technologists anywhere in the world.

Coming back to the Fields Medal in math that we began with, is anyone surprised that the first woman to win a field medal in math is an American citizen from Iran?

V. Sujatha is Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.



[2] accessed on 9 April 2017



Institute of Physics, US:,3564.html

European platform for women scientists:

Aspiring Minds survey on ‘Women in engineering:  A comparative study of barriers across nations’ conducted in 2012:

Books and articles

Godbole, Chandra et al. (2008). Women Physicists in India.  The 3rd IUPAP conference on Women in Physics Conference on Women in Physics,  B. K. Hartline, K. R. Horton, and C. M. Kaicher, (Ed.) American Institute of Physics

De Cheviegne, Suzanne. (2009). The career paths of women (and men )in French Research. Social Studies of Science, 39 (1):113-116

Elliot Jane and Chris Powell. (1987). Young women and science: Do we need more science? British Journal of sociology of education, 8 (3)277-286

Fuchs, Stephan, Janina Von Stebut and Jutta Allmendigener. (2001). Gender, science and scientific organizations in Germany. Minerva, 39(2) 175-201

Godbole and Ramakrishna Ramaswamy Women scientists in India: Report of the Indian Academy of Sciences accessed on 9 April 2017 from: <;

Krishnaraj, Maithreyi. (1991). Women and science: selected essays. Mumbai: Himalaya Publishing House

Kumar, Neelam. (2009). Women and Science In India: A Reader, Oxford University Press: New Delhi

Kurup, Anita and R. Maitrayee (2011). Beyond family and societal attitudes to retain women in science. Current Science 100(1): 43-48

Mukhopadhyay, Carol and Susan Seymour. (1994) (ed.) Women, Education and Family Structure in India. Oxford: West View Press

Plonski, Ary Gilherme and Rochelle G. Saidel. (2001). Gender, science and technology in Brazil.  Minerva 39:  217-238

Schiebinger, Londa. (1999). Has feminism changed science? Cambridge : Harvard University Press.

Subrahmanyan Lalita. (1998). Women Scientist in the third world: The Indian Experience. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Subramanian, Jayashree. (2007). Perceiving and Producing Merit: Gender and Doing Science in India. Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 14: 259-285

Sujatha V. (2015) Forms of asymmetry and cultural bias: Of gender and science in India and the world, Transcience Vol 1(1):1-19

Sur, Abha. (2011). Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender and Modern Science in India. New Delhi: Navayana Publishing

Twombly Susan. (1998). Women academic leaders in a Latin American University: Reconciling the paradoxes of professional lives. Higher education, 35 (4): 367-397







4 thoughts on “Scientism, familism and women scientists: V Sujatha”

  1. Very important article specially when male hegemony is on the rise as the right wing is trying to impose manu system again. In a country of the great mathematician Shakuntala Devi, the percent of women in higher scientific and technological education is dismal. This is even pathetic in premier educational institutes. The government should consider reservations for women in higher scientific institutes. Also, social support and domestic encouragement must be stepped up. Collective responsibility in household duties including child care may reduce women dropping out in the middle of the career. Social structure should be conducive for more women taking up scientific and technological higher education. Only then, we can witness number of Marie Curie in the top institutes


  2. Being in the world of feminism (pointing to feminist perspective) we debate mostly about women have most space in academic field only and we need to create such space for women in every field. But when we observe the data from such authentic works, we come to know how much opportunity today women have even in the field related to academics. Women are not even have that much of opportunities to even move upto their higher education. Who is answerable to it?


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