Sexual harassment in science labs under microscope

With few women scientists and even fewer in positions of leadership, the glass ceiling stretches strong and powerfully over India's laboratories and research institutions, leaving the sector vulnerable to incidents of sexual harassment, scientists say.

The recent allegations against a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Life Sciences here has put the issue of treatment of women in Indian science labs under the microscope. While sexual transgressions in the sector are not very different from those in other fields, the patriarchal power structures of scientific research, the gender imbalance, close supervisor-student relationship and long hours make it especially vulnerable, insiders said.

"Science, like all human endeavours, benefits from diversity. There are too few women scientists at the top of the power structures of Indian science. Further, women scientists are much less visible, resulting in a dearth of role models," Aurnab Ghose from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, told PTI. The nature of the economics underlying scientific enterprise, he said, results in hierarchical organisations with men typically at the top. All this in the broader societal context of systematic gender discrimination leaves women vulnerable to harassment, he said.

There are no figures for sexual harassment in science, but numbers could be high.

Sudha Bhattacharya, a retired professor from JNU's School of Environmental Science, noted that a PhD supervisor exercised significant power over a student in terms of contributing to academic excellence and in other matters such as recommendations for future jobs. "In experimental science, the supervisor has even more authority since the student needs a whole range of lab facilities, including equipment and reagents, which could be very expensive," Bhattacharya told PTI. The research student has to discuss data and plan future experiments regularly, sometimes daily, with the supervisor, requiring the student-supervisor relationship to be cordial at the very least, she said.

While many factors which lead to sexual harassment at the workplace in academia are common to social and natural sciences, there is an added edge when it comes to experimental research, said Dr Vineeta Bal, visiting faculty at IISER's Department of Biology.

"It requires a lot more funding in terms of infrastructure and chemicals. It makes for more potential control by the supervisors on students," Bal said.

Sparsh Agarwal, a fifth year biochemical engineering and biotechnology student at IIT Delhi, agreed.

It is totally upon the supervisor to confirm whether a student can be awarded a PhD degree or not. Thus, this sometimes leads to supervisor taking undue advantage of the student which in many cases shapes into sexual harassment, he said, adding that steps should be taken to reduce the dependency of students on their supervisor.

Ghosh said while sexual harassment did not happen only in the scientific world, the heavily patriarchal power structures of science left it open to exploitation.

"If factors such as sexual misconduct are driving women out of science, then the scientific community must act," he said. Bhattacharya also blamed societal attitudes. "As a very senior woman scientist, it pains me that even today societal attitudes have not changed sufficiently to give budding women scientists the freedom and space they need to devote whole-heartedly to their research," she said.

A recent petition signed by over 165 scientists from the country's leading science institutes highlighted the need for blacklisting those accused of sexual harassment from serving on scientific committees, receiving funding, awards and being elected to academies.

While the JNU episode -- when some women students levelled charges against Professor Atul Johri last month -- is dominating the discourse on sexual harassment in science labs, the problem clearly has no geographical limits. Similar stories of abuse were recently reported from other science institutes in India, as well as from the US, Latin America, Europe and Australia.

The high-profile case involving Indian climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri, former head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is still in court.

In January, one of India's top researchers in immunology, Kanury VS Rao, was served a termination letter from the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, for allegedly sexually harassing a woman colleague.

"What is desirable is to ensure women scientists are in leadership roles and in decision-making bodies. Funding agencies and academies should encourage a discrimination-free work culture and take strong action against proven offenders. This includes gender sensitisation workshops," Bhattacharya said. She also emphasised the need for accessible women's cells and institutional complaints committees with confidential, impartial and non-judgemental reporting mechanisms and investigations.

Institutes should bear the burden of gender-sensitisation on campuses, she said. "This includes day-care facilities, enough accessible clean toilets, facilities for nursing mothers and ensuring that institutional activities are held at reasonable times of the day so as not to inconvenience staff and faculty with children," she added.


For updates related to this incident, stay connected with BEYOND TEACHING