Soapbox Post

The under-representation of women in science, identified by feminists, debated by epistemologists and presently confusing concerned policymakers is yet another evidence of science as a social activity, incorporating social beliefs and trends, ideological imperatives and political practices. Or it could be evidence, as one of my male engineer friends in India with an affinity for biological determinism pointed out, of the essential right brained nature of women. In the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), his alma mater, the percentage of women students have always remained at under ten percent.


The formal obstacles to women’s participation in science as knowledge makers (and not merely consumers marveling at the “science” of Alpha-hydroxy acids and acai berry diets) are now illegal. Yet women (not surprisingly) continue to be disadvantaged as students, teachers, authors, researchers and other practitioners of science. Historical necessity might lead to reforming of formal structures. Structures of consciousness, social and collective, are trickier.


I have heard stories from women who were asked by well meaning teachers to not pursue science or even economics courses because those required knowledge of mathematics. The reasons given were anything from “you cannot do it, it’s hard” to “trust me ‘home sciences’ would be more useful.” Science education did not guarantee a related career too. Most Indian women call center employees that I knew, painstakingly training to speak heavily accented American English, working night shifts taking calls to book air tickets and troubleshoot merchandise orders from customers in the United States, were science majors.


On a train to Bombay, I once had an intriguing conversation with an elderly lady. A scientist who worked for years in the field of genomics and integrative biology, her accounts of the exciting developments in her institute, were interspersed with stories of blatant sexism and partiality, of male scientists and administrators.  


She also told me the story of “Raman Effect.”


C.V. Raman, celebrated physicist and icon of Indian technonationalism, received Nobel Prize in 1930 for his discovery of the Raman Effect. A great mind, he was honored with a Knighthood and with numerous honorary doctorates from universities all over the World. He was the director of Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore for 10 years.


“What do you know about the Raman Effect?” asked my co-traveler with a smile filled with the promise of a good story to follow, or at least a punch line.


 “Well… something to do with scattering of lights, right?”


“That, too. Anyway, do you know that as director of IISc, Raman never wanted to admit women? He considered women to be incapable.”


“Incapable because …..”


“I am not sure. But I like calling this the Raman Effect, another kind of Raman Effect that has got to do with darkness, not light.”


I was frankly incredulous. Before the train of globalization made its halt in India, in the pre cable TV era of funny nationalist social messages, Indian Nobel Laureates in science such as Raman and S. Chandrasekhar were regarded as Gods, emblematic of our superior civilization now in disarray, of our matchless undiscovered scientific talent pool, of our undaunted achievements in the face of poverty. To all Indians, interested or involved in the sciences or not, these were heroes. I was not yet ready to associate them with any flaws, least of all gender discrimination.


Later I tried to research on this anecdotal information but found nothing. No one that I knew in the academia or press had heard about this. All I got were incredulous stares and head-shaking.  Then, I came across an item on the other “Raman Effect” in the archives of Indian Express, a no-frills newspaper with a record of honest journalism. The item was on an aspiring student of biochemistry who topped the merit lists of Bombay University. Raman rejected her application to IISc. He apparently said: “I am not going to take any girls in my institute!”


“My institute!”— this would be typical of a leader taking over the reigns of an organization, run on the lines of imperialist control. Indian administrators and bureaucrats to this date use similar expressions to communicate “democratic” decisions that would be final, no debate or deliberations allowed. Why would a priest of the temple of science act any different?


Ideologies of gender, Indian nationalism and science informed each other and supported each other in their creation of dominant discourses and social arrangements that my generation inherited. But I like to believe that things are changing, both at the level of perceptions and legislations, academic and popular discourses. I really do not mind getting hostile stares for mentioning the other “Raman Effect” as long as the stares mean “of course he would not do that”, and not, “but why wouldn’t he?”


About the Author:  Debjani Chakravarty is pursuing her Ph.D. at ASU in Women and Gender Studies and participates in CSPO’s Alternative Imaginations Research Cluster.

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