When Salma Hayek was expecting her first child, she was asked whether she would like a boy or a girl. Hayek is purported to have said that she would prefer a boy because “women suffer a bit more than men.” Hayek then went on to come under a lot of flak for this statement; but this does make us pause and think. Although she had meant it as a generalization of women all over the world, one does wonder if this generalization does not perhaps apply more to women in some parts of the world more than others. There has been a strong correlation between the status of women in society and the political, social and economic progress of that society. India, where I come from, has made tremendous developments in the past few decades in various sectors, most notably women empowerment and education.

Growing up in India in the 90’s and graduating high school towards the turn of the century, I must admit that I did not face any sort of criticism or questioning of my abilities as a scientist. I enjoyed and was encouraged to play with legos and G.I.Joe. In fact, everyone in my family and friends' circle strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in science and engineering with one single goal: a strong and flourishing career.

I soon realized, however, that I was in the minority. The real world was far, far different from the privileged cocoon I had grown up in. Although almost all women in cities in India have the freedom and family support to pursue whatever career they choose, women in rural India face a completely different situation. In Rajasthan, a state in northern India, which has one of the highest rates of female infanticide in the country, the literacy rate for men is 80.5%, while for women is only 52.7%. Without proper access to education in the first place, wherefore will these women go if they want to pursue an education and career in science?

From my personal experience, discrimination against women in science does indeed exist in societies where there is a strong history of patriarchy.

Much to their credit, most young men of the current generation in India that I have met do not feel that women are in any way less capable than men in science. Once again, unfortunately, my sample space is limited to educated urban India. Having said that, however, I would also like to point out that I have come across situations where there was an undercurrent undermining my abilities in math and physics. However, having studied in both America and India, many of my female American friends have told me of instances where they were treated like ‘complete ignoramuses’ when they participated in what was traditionally a ‘male job’ like getting the car fixed.

Having been exposed to various cultures, including middle-eastern, the situation there is the same there as well. In most Arab societies, there is not that much discrimination among urban population. However, the statistics change when we come to extremely conservative countries like Saudi Arabia where women are simply not encouraged to study as much as their desire or abilities decree. The situation is similar in many parts of Africa. Having met an African student in the U.S who had to undergo the inhumanity that is female castration, I believe that Africa is one place we could or rather should really help.

In many cases in the developing world, red tape and lack of funding ensure that the best projects go to men. The administrators are not willing to take a risk on a woman, it would seem. Problems get compounded for a woman who already has a family. It would appear almost as if having a child meant that the mother’s time spent with the child would make her lose focus in a field like science which required rigorous attention and discipline. This is a deep-rooted mindset that has been present in most developing nations, most of which have a strongly patriarchal society. Generally, a woman working in a science related field is given less preference when it comes to taking on projects, if she is a divorcee. Again, a victim of social stigma.

However, things are not as bad as they seem. The number of female children enrolling in education for last year is 97%. This is a huge increase from the early 90’s when it was just a mere 31%. However, political administration in India has recognized the need to promote the spread of science and tech education in India. For one, DBT, a government run organization that issues scientific grants, has come up with certain schemes mainly for women who have had a break in their scientific career due to children etc. Such initiatives by the government can only serve to enhance the position and number of women who take up science and engineering careers. With more initiatives like this, I feel optimistic that the governments of various developing nations would come to a deeper understanding of problems women face when they want to pursue a career in science and engineering.

Meanwhile, I will continue to play with my legos and hope.

Image: Akiko Kobayashi writing equations, by UNESCO.