Society, career and the female scientist: Tangled in a web - IndiaBioscience

While considering the issue of mental health in academia, it is important to remember that existing societal structures have a significant impact on the lives of researchers and these effects vary from community to community. In this next article in our series on mental health, Nazia discusses how trying to balance the expectations of a patriarchal society with their scientific aspirations affects the mental health of women in science and some possible solutions to this problem.

Right before entering her PhD supervisor’s cabin, Garima (name changed) mentally rehearsed her meticulously worded script. She was going to break the news of her impending wedding and foresaw a not-so-pleasant reaction. But what she didn’t imagine was that she would be dismissed from a project she had spent a year’s hard work on. For the next month, she cried before getting out of her bed every morning. Her mental health worsened post-marriage, as she tried to juggle professional and societal expectations. While Garima has now progressed in her career, it took panic attacks, anti-depressants, and counselling to get so far.

This may sound like a one-off story. But if you are a female Indian researcher, chances are you know someone who has at least partly been in a similar position.

The research environment is often stressful and hostile. Adding societal conditioning and intrusion to the mix can exacerbate the situation, especially for women. The global perspective of the mental health of female researchers doesn’t factor in the effect of an inherently intrusive traditional society on mental fitness.

To survey the impact of societal norms on the career choices and mental health of Indian women in science, I posted a questionnaire on select social media platforms, to reach out to female Indian researchers and a few women on other science career paths and stages. I received almost 300-odd responses within a matter of a few days — far beyond my expectations.

Distribution of respondents to the survey

Many-a-story and emotion were shared in response to the questions. Like a PhD scholar who aptly describes our society as one that ​“obsesses more about a woman’s marital status than their career aspirations, with everyone having an opinion on it — right from your doctor, shopkeepers, maids, to perfect strangers”*.

Even with the rise in the number of women enrolling in higher education in India, most respondents mention how it remains a means of improving marriage prospects. A paradox that we live by is to encourage young girls to be rank-chasers in school but, as a PhD researcher remarks, ​“discourage them from having career aspirations as home-making and childbearing abilities determine a woman’s value in the society”.

Resoundingly, most respondents find their families preferring medical or teaching professions suitable for their daughters. While the former brings in ​“prestige”, the latter ​“allows women to fulfil her household duties”. A few others remarked how their parents preferred the IT sector for them, supposedly a way for quicker professional settlement, and subsequently better marriage prospects. A general practitioner also believes that girls are conditioned into choosing specific careers such that they ​“don’t think outside the box and follow the choices ingrained into them”. Another PhD scholar observes, ​“Matrimonial profiles state nothing about the bride-to-be’s educational qualifications, but mainly focus on her home-making and physical qualities”.

But when a PhD instils critical thinking and leadership qualities in women, it goes against the accepted norms of our society. Some responders wrote how many believe their qualification has made them ​“too-educated”, ​“arrogant”, ​“egoistic”, ​“demanding”, ​“temperamental”, ​“intimidating”, ​“non-adjusting”, ​“high-standard” and ​“argumentative”.

A researcher mentions balancing home with career, which she has been taught is her sole responsibility, ​“leaves her tired out”. Her husband supports her decision to pursue PhD but doesn’t contribute to domestic work. Known as the double-burden syndrome, this leads to many women quitting their jobs. Even then, sharing of the mental load remains a distant dream. Some responders voluntarily quit work post-marriage or post-baby. While privilege may provide such an option, socio-economic constraints and pressure to conform to traditional gender roles also influences this preference.

The male breadwinner notion also leads to power imbalances within homes, creating breeding grounds for mental distress in both men and women. Many women noted the limitations that come with being the trailing spouse. A PhD aspirant, engaged to be married soon, says, ​“I got excellent offers to study abroad, but obediently decided to marry at the acceptable age. Here I am now in India, looking for a PhD”. The lack of job opportunities post-PhD in many places in India compounds the problem.

Institutional bias continues even after a century after CV Raman, the second Indian Nobel Laureate, infamously denied admission to a woman at IISc in the 1930s. ​“Despite securing the 63rd rank at the National Eligibility Test (NET), I was always asked not to get married by the Professors I approached,” a Research Associate recalls. ​“My PhD mentor gave me a tough time after my baby, and the society thinks I am career-oriented and selfish with no time for family”, she adds. Ironically, a study showed that delaying or foregoing normative family roles doesn’t fetch better opportunities for women in STEM. Another postdoctoral researcher points out the inadequacy of the resources provided by the government schemes for women.

Of the lesser discussed issues, reproductive and gynaecological health problems such as endometriosis, infertility, pregnancy complications, postpartum depression and menopause can negatively affect mental health. According to an Assistant Professor who responded to the questionnaire, ​“family pressure to conceive a child combined with infertility issues and treatment failures during my postdoc in a very demanding lab impacted my mental health”.

But all was not grim. Many respondents from across the board mentioned being ​“lucky to have families (and cats!)” who supported them and helped navigate around the stressors. This tweet from Vatsala Thirumalai, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize awardee, crediting her success solely to her parent’s unwavering support in an orthodox society, is a testimony to the same.

Societal conditioning leads to women doubting their self-worth and downplaying their talents. While mental health issues of women in science are actively discussed online and among youngsters, they are not reaching those who need to be sensitised more — the corner wali aunty who judges professionally successful woman or the building uncle who disses the character of a 30+ single woman. Indian pop culture revolves around domesticated women taking care of four generations of family members. Indian films on female scientists are also more of a disservice — whether it is the pill-popping, ​“mad-scientist” portrayal of the female protagonist in Hasee Toh Phasee or the male-saviour plotline of Mission Mangal.

Snippets of some responses to the questionnaire

Navigating around the problem

Many practical institutional reforms have been discussed and are being implemented to support women. Societal restructure will bolster these reforms for which change needs to start young. A subject on gender equity at school level can create a more lasting effect. Public awareness on how gender diversity leads to better scientific outcomes and structured mentorship programs can create more inclusive spaces.

Schemes and policies for women empowerment must go beyond mere tokenism. Providing provisions to transfer PhDs and work part-time will allow many females to stay within research. Childcare supportfellowships can help female researchers circumvent the burden of additional expenses. Schemes focusing on the two-body problem can help easy relocations for partners.

Further, rather than pinning biological issues against women, we should accept them as the norm and work around them to create an equitable environment. Cultivating an environment of open conversations is a requirement that goes beyond just academic discussions. Many institutions have a sexual harassment cell in place. Similar setups that deal with gender bias also need to be added to the support system of researchers.

As Caroline Criado Perez writes in her book, The Invisible Woman, ​“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience — that of half the global population, after all, is seen as, well, niche.” Calling issues that women encounter as female-specific problems derails the conversation. It is a societal problem for which only a woman is penalised.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at