Jayasree Subramanian, in her article about Gender Merit, very fluently narrates the issues that are faced by women within a scientific institution. She begins that article by talking about issues of underrepresentation of women in such institutions, and how there’s finally a dialogue and discourse around this issue. Women scientists from everywhere have started speaking up about the lack of women in the field, along with the kind of problems women face in trying to get into such organisations. After stating the problem of underrepresentation, which is important, she then goes on to state that it’s not just underrepresentation of women in science that should be paid attention to, but also the way their experiences are shaped within these organisations by their gender.
Gender, she says, plays a very important role in assessing academic achievements and failures of people within the field of science. Subramanian identifies two kinds of notions that follow the idea of merits, namely, ‘merit is inherent’ notion, which believes that those whom the seniors in the institutions think lack merit, have always lacked merit and will continue to do so because of the fact that merit is inherent, and ‘merit is contingent’ notion believes that merit depends on the interaction of internal and external factor at that particular given point of time. In trying to explore the interplay of gender with merit, Subramanian goes on to take interviews of various men and women in the field of science, to understand the larger context of the implications of gender on science in India.
The better half of the rest of the paper quotes interview responses of men and women in science. These responses bring out the underlying biases that men have against women scientists, and the kind of experiences that women have in such establishments. When asked about whether they think women can do science, men respond by saying that women are great at rote learning because of which they excel in exams, and that men have more conceptual understanding. Such statements, along with those which state that women are usually not preferred during interview rounds or that if one woman doesn’t do well, it is assumed that all women will not be good enough, is an example of how scientific institutions are not objective.
When scientists say that there is no gender discrimination in India, they discredit the ways in which gender affects merit in such implicit manners. They look at an individual’s abilities of working hard and persistence rather than the factors that limit these abilities of people. Subramanian interestingly states that it is important to understand that these limiting factors are subjective throughout human beings. This is because even though they may be scientists and believe in objectivity, they are, at the end of the day, social beings, and that their scientific activities are based in this larger social world. Thus, Indian scientists are not only restricted and regulated by the Indian sociological issues, but also because of how India is placed among the international scientific institutes, resulting in the exclusion and marginalisation of certain groups of people, like women, lower castes, etc.
Jayasree Subramanian’s work on Gender Merit has really got me thinking about the undercurrent of gender discrimination which exists in scientific institutions. The narratives of women, especially, when they bring out the issues or the kind of discrimination they face in scientific institutions, institutions which pride themselves for being objective and rational. There is still a demarcation of what is considered to be suitable for women to do even within science. For example, women are usually asked to do the monotonous theoretical work by their seniors, whereas men take the lead in actual experiments. This issue of division of work within these institutions arises from the sexual division of labour that occurs within families, which is considered to be based on anatomy, where men work in the public sphere while women work in the domestic sphere (Ortner, 1972). We see this sort of clear distinction replicating itself in these institutions.
Another point that Subramanian raises is the whole idea that merit is considered to be inherent and thus is not affected by the life opportunities that the person has had, because of which the scientists are able to claim that the underrepresentation of women or even discrimination against women in science occurs only because they are not meritorious enough, and has nothing to do with their gender. However, considerations of the fact that it is not just the workplace that they need to take of but also their own homes that the women need to charge of. Men can work overtime at the labs without anyone batting their eyelids, whereas if women do the same, they will be considered bad mothers or wives. Also, men want women to perform well at work, but also want their wives to take full responsibility of their homes. Thus, when it comes to women and work, men in scientific institutions have double standards (Shastri, 2015).
Thus, I feel, if we are working with the idea of merit being inherent, it is important create a discourse around merit with the aid of the capabilities approach. Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach focuses on improving the lives of people, and where she focuses on internal capabilities, that is, those which are inherent, and combined capabilities which result in the internal capabilities mingling with the external factors that may limit the capabilities. In doing so, she lists a set of ten capabilities that is important for an individual to have a satisfactory life. One of these ten capabilities is that of being free to choose the work that one wants to do (Nussbaum, 2011). Thus, if we enter into the debate of merit keeping human capabilities as the focal point, we might be able to find solutions to the issues faced by women in science.
- Nussbaum, M. C. (2011) Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Ortner, S. (1972). Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? Feminist Studies, 1(2), 5-31. doi:10.2307/3177638
Shastri, P. (2015) Gender Inequalities in the Science Workplace: An Experiential Perspective.