Minority report

Women in a lab (Flickr/Argonne National Laboratory)

At the registration counter for the 21st General Meeting of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS), in Hyderabad, India, this morning, a young volunteer mistakenly assumed that I must have come as a delegate’s spouse.

This reminded me of one of my favourite anecdotes about a French teenager’s description of a science academy as a club of old gentlemen. French physicist and former co-chair of the InterAcademy Panel, the global network of science academies, Yves Quéré wrote in Nature that the teenager unwittingly zeroed in on three problematic features of science academies: few women, few young people and their modus operandi being akin to private clubs.

Shrugging sniggers from men, I will focus on the first point: few women. At this meeting women participants form about a tenth of the entire meeting. This, some women participants assured me, is a generous estimate.

A 2004 report on science careers of Indian women, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, says women form less than 5 per cent of fellows of each of the three major science academies in India: Indian National Science Academy, Indian Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

This seems reflective of the more general gender malaise. A 2006 report of the InterAcademy Council says 95 per cent of science academy members world over are men.

In the United States, the proportion of women scientists in the National Academy of Sciences is around seven per cent, and in the UK’s Royal Society only 4.5 per cent.

Recent years have seen repeated calls for more incentives for women in research.

I must say the Philippines is refreshingly ahead of India on this front. The National Academy of Science and Technology in the Philippines has had a woman head for at least two terms.

“Academies must set an example for all of the world to see of welcoming women scientists and engineers to their ranks and treating them as full partners with men,” the IAC report said four years ago.

I am not confident that the academies have taken this seriously yet.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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