Women in the India, like in all other countries constitute a minority in the field of science and technology. It is interesting to note that female science students are generally outnumbered by men and the figures are dismal when we count the number of women scientists. This situation seems to be improving, though slowly. When I joined IISER as an undergraduate, I found that there were only four girls amongst twenty six students. The ratio of did not improve in the next batch which had six girls out of forty students. Some people might say that the ratio is not at all bad compared to other science institutes but my main concern is how this difference emerges at first place. This article is an attempt to answer some of these questions.
To explain gender difference in science, we can hypothesize that these differences can be the products of biological or sociological differences between men and women, or both. One can say that women are biologically inept to pursue science, in comparison to men. Here the term ‘biological’ stands for attributes such as logic, analytical skills, rationality and other such ill defined concepts which come under the set of intelligence. This proposition however, is in contradiction to many scientific studies. Studies suggest that male and female infants follow common learning path in understanding the objects and their mechanics so there is no essence of different intrinsic interests that can lead to sex difference.
Many a times men are given advantage for natural talent for mathematics since childhood and are considered to be fit for science and engineering. But in reality these innate skills for mathematics never exist in boys. These systems which help in mathematical thinking and foundations develop equally in boys and girls during the early stages and hence no difference is present in primary abilities of boys and girls.
The developmental theory of sex differences predicts that in general, sex differences are relatively very small among children and arise drastically since onset of puberty in the young adolescents up to the age of 15. These biological differences increase from the age of 16 and reach their maximum among adults. Due to hormonal imbalances, the ratio of female: male brain size and cranial capacity fluctuates by age. Similarly there are many factors like number of neurons, mental rotation during visuo-spatial tasks and patterns and strengths of brain activation during memory tasks etc. signifying biological differences. If we consider all the biological factors together, they are not statistically significant to make such large difference in number of men versus women in science.
If we draw our attention towards sociological factors then we can find a relevant difference in the attitude of society on the children starting from the birth. These sex differences are perpetuated by sociological factors on a large scale and create an atmosphere showing great sign of differences in the capabilities of men and women and force us to underestimate women in science.
In many families, parents have gender differentiated educational expectations and goals for son and daughter. Several studies have found that almost all societies have valued sons more than daughters and have shown a marked preference for male children. The tiny population of women scientists causes a lack of role models for the young girls who want to pursue science as a career. In our society women are supposed to be more responsible at home and compromising to their job rather than personal life. Sexual harassment is another very serious workplace problem behind the gender differences. It creates unhealthy environment for working women in science institutes among all other working organization.
Combining biological and sociological, both the factors we can say that differences can be explained by biological differences interacting with socialization and biases. The continuous interplay of sociological, environmental and biological influences is so complex that it’s very hard to understand all of them in order to explain gender differences. But still we can conclude that sociological factors do play a significant role since the birth of a child and perceptions of parents and society towards the behavior of their children influence the actions of children.