What women really want…

And many others too!

Almost every technical/professional society has a women’s group. Some even have groups for ethnic minorities. The aim of these groups is to improve the standing and representation of individuals from these disadvantaged groups within the profession through educational and networking opportunities and making career support available to them.

You may have read my post on the importance of Equality and Diversity in Science and Technology (E&D Anyone). I make the case that having equal opportunities and a diverse workforce is beneficial for us all in the long term.

The question is, are these groups managing to achieve these stated aims?

Well some are contributing to them with their excellent work (seminars, talks, workshops, awards), while a large number are window dressing and not much more. Organising an annual ‘Women in X’ lunch or ‘ZZ minority in Y field’ tagged into a large conference, as many groups do, simply doesn’t cut it.

The barriers faced by minority or disadvantaged groups are more complex, typically including (see references at the end of the post):

–        Limited access to funds

–        Lower publication and citation rates

–        Fewer honours and prizes won

–        Lower promotion rate and lower pay

–        Less recognition

So what should women’s or other such groups targeted at a disadvantaged section do?

I believe sticking band-aids over a wound will not do the work of a tourniquet. If we want to stop the haemorrhage of talented women/ethnic minorIties/gay people/disabled people from STEM we need to come up with effective measures. These in my view include:

–        Engage with all members and stress to them how diversity is important for everyone in the society. Then get everyone to contribute be it in the form of money/time/expertise/influence

–        Get professional advice!  Businesses have diversity managers – hire them as consultants to learn how they get it right

–        Within professional bodies, getting capable people from these groups to sit on bodies and committees that make the policies for the body

–        Set a target that every journal has sufficient number of people from such groups on the editorial board. Train and support candidates where necessary

–        Ensure that all awards committees have enough people from disadvantaged groups

–        Create long term meaningful career support programmes. For example, set up 5 year programmes where x number of promising applicants will be selected and

a)     given funds for publishing their work (say publication charges for 2 articles per year)

b)     funds to attend one conference per year

c)     mentoring from senior and successful people in the field

d)     executive coaching from professional coaches

e)     skills training on negotiation, influencing, public speaking, interviewing, leadership

f)      get these people on editorial boards

–        Give media coverage to talented individuals from these groups, not limited to ‘Women in X’ or ‘Ethnic minority in Y’ publications alone.

–        Create funds for scholarship and bursaries for these groups, even in affluent countries

There would be many more things that can be done and I invite you to suggest some.

The key thing however, is that we need real will to make these changes happen. Otherwise no matter which measure we adopt, it will falter along and finally stutter to a stop. Allied with determination, we need to have transparency.

As members of professional bodies, we ought to be far more involved in the working of these bodies. Ultimately we will be better served if we articulate our needs clearly. Given that Equality and Diversity is beneficial for us, we ought to be asking for that in the way our societies operate.

We contribute to professional bodies via our membership dues, our time (reviewing articles for free, organising events, serving on committees), donating money and other means. Yet at times we may feel very distant from the policies of the organisation or even how these are made. One way to remedy this is to have more detailed working of the body available: membership statistics, composition of committees and the procedures attached to them, results of initiatives taken, the balance sheet of the organisation. This information should inform our decisions when electing officers and we can strongly support those who espouse E&D and have coherent, smart policies around these issues.

We can effect the changes we want for a more equitable scientific society, all it needs is our involvement.


  1. http://www.advance.arizona.edu/resources.cfm#academia
  2. http://sss.sagepub.com/content/42/2/307
  3. http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/files/2010/10/science-and-gender-in-academia1.pdf
  4. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534707002704
  5. http://arxiv.org/vc/math/papers/0701/0701537v2.pdf
  6. Zuckerman, Harriet. “The careers of men and women scientists.” Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist science studies (2001): 67.
  7. Trix F, Penska C (2003) Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society 14: 191–220

Hey! Have you read…

Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, To Kill a Mockingbird…

I could probably make a list of the books that I’ve loved and asked my friends cartoon on science booksand family if they’ve read them too. Not only that, I could make a list of books that people have asked me about, those that hit the bestseller lists and become all the rage. You probably have your own mental lists ready at this stage too!

To me a good book pulls me into its universe, making me feel what its characters experience, think like them and about them. It makes me care about the outcomes and the implications of the story. It’s magic of a sort.

So what really intrigues me are the books on science written for the average reader by the technical expert! Think ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Dawkins or ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Hawking (and many others..).

We’re used to thinking of “A Song of Ice and Fire” and “Harry Potter” as magical universes. But the best non-fiction books can show you the magic world of real Science as well.

These fantastic books present to us some incredibly complex and challenging scientific concepts/arguments in a way that we can understand and appreciate. They make us think and question, they rouse a sense of wonder and curiosity about Science. They can inspire.

The book I enormously enjoyed recently was Philip Ball’s ‘Nature’s Patterns‘ in three parts which discussed patterns we see in nature and how they form. It’s brilliant!

A typical scientific career (an academic one, at any rate) primarily involves writing for technical audiences within the discipline through journals and text/research books. The rewards in this profession too are mostly connected to citations of journal articles by other scientists, impact factors and so on. So what drives people to write pop Science books?

I am speculating, and think it could be a combination of few things:

– fame (if you can write something hugely successful)

– success that may come in part because of that fame

– money (again if the book is sufficiently successful)

– love of writing

– desire to share with other people the science you find so captivating

– influence people, policy

– to win awards (such as Royal Society Winton Prize  for books, Wellcome Trust Book Prize, AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books among others )

Yet writing about Science for a lay audience is a daunting task and even for those who do undertake it, success is hardly guaranteed. On the Guardian site 5 very famous writers (James Gleick, Lone Frank, Steven Pinker, Joshua Foer and Brian Greene) talk about writing successful Science books (Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?)

So do you think you’ll have a go at your own book?

I hope you will and that I will get to read it!

Meanwhile I will work on a follow up blogpost on general Science communication – keep a look out and happy writing!

Cricket and Science: Whats at play?

I write this post as India stands on the verge of a humiliating defeat in the test series against England. Those of you who follow cricket, especially Indian cricket, would be aware of the situation, with some sharing my pain over India’s fate. cartoon on intrinsic motivation

But how can this possibly connect to a post on science?

Bear with me for 2 paragraphs and my questions will be clear:

In my personal opinion the game of cricket has been over-commercialised, especially in India. The passion for the game among spectators has been fuelled into a frenzy that is being exploited ruthlessly. Companies hawk their products to the public (endorsed by overpaid and underperforming cricket stars), an inept cricket board is greedy for ticket revenues and TV rights proceedings, the media chases stories related to the sport and so on. A key piece in this jigsaw are the players.

As professional sportspeople, players want a financial reward and incentives. With very impressive contracts and match fees from the cricket board, and eye popping endorsement fees, the financial incentives are plentiful. Because the game is a craze in India, the players are demi-gods, and the calendar is chock-full of matches. Somewhere down the line, the players, the board members, the media all seem to have eyes only for the money the game can generate. The love for the sport and enjoyment in playing it, making it happen or reporting it has all but disappeared. Which leads me to my question.

Players initially come into the sport because they truly enjoy playing the sport and are good at it. Financial incentives and need for security drive them to succeed (along with other factors). Then the glut of money overtakes everything till the point, that they seem not to care about how well they play or even about enjoying the game at all.

This is called “crowding out of intrinsic motivation” in the economics literature.  Activities such as research, working for a NGO, donating blood etc. are usually associated with benefits such as civic duty, passion for the mission of the organisation etc. When financial rewards are offered, this motivation can be drowned or chased away. Hence referees being paid low sums (Engers and Gans) or schoolchildren collecting for charitable causes REDUCING collection when being paid (Gneezy and Rustichini), and see (Benabou and Tirole) and references therein for more work on this topic. Would this translate to Science as well?

Many of us choose to work in Science because we love it: the thrill of finding something new, discovering why things are the way they are, creating something, solving difficult problems and so on. And we too need financial security. We too can be ambitious. So we too follow the path the scientific system requires. As success in this system is measured by publications, citations, grant money, awards and positions we obviously work towards these.

So by extension could it be that in chasing stability and success some of us may end up shifting focus from the love of our Science to the papers, the grant applications, the conference talks, the award nominations, the committee memberships etc? Could it be that scientific success and its demands ensnare us so much in its trappings that we forget the very passion for science that brought us into the lab?

Could it be that one day I will care more about how much grant money I have generated or how many invited talks I have been asked to deliver than my beloved spiral patterns?

The thought both frightens and dismays me.


1. Engers and Gann: The American Economic Review, vol. 88, no. 5, pp. 1341-1349, 1998.

2. Gneezy and Rustichini: Journal of Legal Studies, Vol.29, No. 1, pp. 1-17, 2000.

3. Benabou and Tirole: The American Economic Review, vol. 95, no. 5, pp. 1652-1678, 2006.