Let’s start with a simple test to illustrate the challenge: If asked to name a famous Indian woman scientist, would you have a ready answer? In my experience, most tend to struggle. Thereby hangs a tale. Where are the gutsy girls of Indian science?
Asking the above question was the proverbial single step that took me on an incredible whirlwind journey of a thousand miles.
Over the last two years, I not only wrote a book but also found a prestigious publisher to back my project. I’ve had my efforts recognised by the Prime Minster. I met the W&CW Minister who tweeted her support. And importantly, UNESCO come on board as a partner in the project that turned out to be “The Gutsy Girls of Science”
As a feminist, I felt strongly on progressive representation of women because I noticed that we children are exposed to rather gender biased stories. My passion for equality led me to utilise both my artistic and coding skills to bring about change. I developed a ML tool to detect gender bias in stories which I feel is quite an eyeopener.
While I paint and code, writing helps me clarify my ideas and express them to create impact. I have won several prizes for my stories and essays in the past. In fact, when I won an essay writing contest and saw my name in the book of winning essays, it probably planted the idea of writing my very own book in my tiny head. Writing opened doors for me.
The book started when I was researching my subject choice for senior school. I was looking at career choices and realised I didn’t seem to know any scientists who looked like me – female and Indian. Did India not have any women scientists?
That is partly true, if numbers are to be believed.
I discovered that only 14 % of scientists, engineers, and technologists in Indian research development institutions and universities are women, compared to a global average of 33%.
Surely this was not because girls are not smart? After all, almost every year, newspaper headlines in India proclaim the superior performance of girls over boys in that annual rite of passage before college – board exams. Yet, why did these bright young girls rarely seem interested in pursuing one of the most important fields shaping our world today – science?
At the school level, the challenge is twofold. How do we nurture our girls to develop an abiding interest in science? And how do we encourage them to recognise the merits of pursuing higher studies, and eventually careers, in STEM-related fields?
It’s a complicated issue. But when I spoke to fellow students as well as my school counsellor, everyone agreed that having more role models to emulate would help keep more girls in science. We can’t be what we can’t see. Most girls decide on their subjects between the ages of 13 and 17, and Grade 10 is when this choice is formalised. Schools and boards thus need to upscale efforts to educate girls about the opportunities that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) offer.
I realised that my coding class and Math society had many more boys than girls; and there were no boys in my art hobby classes at all. My grandmother told me with some sadness about not being allowed to pursue engineering because it was not seen as an appropriate stream for girls. This made the issue quite personal.
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The spark was lit when I came across news stories and a tweet which had pictures of 11 women scientists who had been recognised by the Indian government. As I read about them, I was really moved and inspired. There were botanists like Janaki Ammal who defied social expectations and packed so much in a rich and accomplished life. She refused an early marriage to go abroad to study and went on to developed India’s sweet sugarcane strain, making us self-reliant in sugar production. She then donned the role of an activist when she helped save the Silent Valley in Kerala from ecologically unsafe dams. She even had a rose, a herb and a magnolia named after her. What a rock star! Each scientist had similar amazing stories. Why had no one told me about them earlier?
I started painting their portraits and writing little poems about them in April 2020, shortly after turning 15 years old. I wrote as if trying to speak to a younger version of myself – it was a conversation, not a lecture. And my research went beyond the scientists themselves – I wanted the readers to develop curiosity about the science behind the scientists.
I hope these stories reach many young girls and boys across India and we move the needle on the number of women who follow STEM careers. In fact, my dream would be to have one of the stories from my book incorporated into the school syllabus so that Madam Curie has company.
Ilina Singh is the author of The Gutsy Girls of Science. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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