“Where are the Sri Lankan Female Scientists?” A Case of Democratizing Science

Photo by Reuters, courtesy International Business Times

In recent decades, many researchers, education specialists and policy advocates have paid increasing attention to the issue of gender bias in science. While several successful attempts have been made to increase female participation in science, a dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields still remains around the world. A 2013 UNESCO study found that only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. According to this study, just one in five countries has achieved gender parity, where 45% to 55% of researchers are women. Around the world, there are stark differences in female participation in science. For instance, in Bolivia, women account for 63% of researchers, compared to France with a rate of 26% and Ethiopia at 8%. In South and West Asia, the average percentage of female scientists lag behind at 20%, ranging from 8% in Nepal to 37% in Sri Lanka.

Based on the UNESCO statistics one might argue that Sri Lanka is relatively better off than most other countries in the region. However, this argument only holds true when focused solely on percentage-participation. A closer examination of Sri Lankan female scientists’ work/work environments reveals a different picture. It is particularly hard to argue that a discussion of gender bias in science is irrelevant in a country where over a dozen inventors won presidential awards for their inventions in 2011 and 2012- all men! In light of this, popular Sri Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene once asked, “So, where are our women inventors?”

So, where are our female inventors/scientists, really? According to the 2010 National Science Foundation (NSF) Statistical Handbook for Sri Lanka, out of 2,140 full-time researchers in Sri Lanka, only 39% were female. Among full-time and part-time researchers, NSF identified 3,256 male and 1,906 female R&D scientists. Female scientists in natural sciences, medicine, and agricultural sciences remained at 40%, 46%, and 38%. While these proportions may not be too bleak, much larger gender differences existed in engineering and technologies (only 27% female) and social sciences (only 30% female). Among full-time equivalent scientists, it should be noted that many more males (492) than females (186) are employed in the private sector, while the numbers remain somewhat equal (albeit low) in the government sector and the higher education sector. Interestingly though, there are no statistically significant differences between proportions of male and female scientists in Sri Lanka with Ph.D., M.Phil/M.Sc. and MD/MS degrees. Why then are equally qualified women underrepresented in certain scientific disciplines, certain high-paying employment sectors, and among prestigious award recipients? This under-representation is particularly concerning in a country where more than half of the total population (51.1%) is comprised of women; a country that harbors one of the oldest Asian democracies.

The picture becomes even more problematic when issues of out-migration, popularly known as “brain drain,” are taken into consideration. It’s a well-known fact that most scientists who migrate to the U.S. and other developed countries to pursue their higher education do not return back to Sri Lanka. I moved to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. and have since joined faculty at a U.S. research university. I recall feeling elated when I graduated with a Honors degree in Plant Biotechnology from the University of Colombo; one of five aspiring young women of the first cohort of Plant Biotechnologists trained by the Department of Plant Sciences; an all girls club! All five of us went on to pursue M.Sc./Ph.D. degrees and four remain in foreign research institutions. I have not yet been able to find any reliable statistics on gender disparities among Sri Lankan STEM graduates employed in foreign institutions; a worthwhile investigation that might shed more light on how gender plays a role in future educational and career choices. In particular, how much of this out-migration is a result of intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivations? How much of it is driven by (perceived and real?) lack of opportunities and a democratic system of governance that grant equal participation?

Social scientists have long investigated factors that contribute to lower female participation in STEM fields that contribute to a “leaky pipeline” in science (the idea that the pipeline that carries students from secondary school through university and on to the job market, leaks students at various stages; and unsurprisingly, women leak out more than men). So what really causes these leaks in the science pipeline and ultimate lack of females in the highest levels of science?

Research suggests that early childhood socialization play a significant role in girls’ and boys’ future interests and successes in science. Starting from birth, boys and girls are generally treated differently. Parents encourage boys to be more assertive while teaching their girls to be sensitive and affectionate. Through distinct early childhood experiences, girls gain more social and emotional skills while boys develop more spatial visualization and basic math/science skills. These early childhood factors prepare boys better for a future in science. Empirical evidence suggests that teachers too interact more often with boys than girls. If science is not made appealing to girls in their early education, they will most likely not pursue science careers later in life.

Stereotypes are also known to play a role in one’s choice to pursue a science career. The stereotypical image of a scientist has long remained one of an older, European/White male. Science is imagined as lonely, isolating, and not accommodating to families. In one seminal U.S. based study, when researchers asked 1,600 students spanning grades 2-12 to draw what they think a scientist looks like, only 165 students drew female scientists! Even females themselves do not seem to see other women in the role of “the scientist.” Incorporating more female role models into lecture plans has proven to decrease stigmas to some extent. Reminding students that Watson and Crick would not have been able to discover the structure of DNA without the contributions of Rosalind Franklin actually helps!

Even the girls who do decide to study science in universities/colleges continue to suffer from gender biases. Researchers have found that because faculty in sciences, particularly physical sciences and engineering, are males, male students identify easier with them and feel more accepted. Faculty may undervalue the potential of female students, which may cause low self-esteem and hopeless among women. Women also suffer from lack of female role models in science. These important issues in education have detrimental impacts on female interest in science. Additionally, the amount and types of peer support also vary significantly by gender. Girls generally tend to have less peer support for their science interests than boys, which may hinder achieving a science degree later in life. With less beneficial science peer relations, it may be harder for girls to pursue science. Even when girls are performing well in science and math classes, they are still less likely to pursue a career in science, which seems to be at least partially influenced by their peers’ choices.

Add to the (negative) early childhood experiences, workplace discrimination, and negative stereotypes, the fact that some women opt out of science or choose to engage in part-time work due to childbearing and other family responsibilities. To even imagine leveling the playing field for women, it is essential that, among other things, government policies/employers enable better child-care options, effective dual-career policies, and better childbirth accommodations. It is my hope that initiating a discussion and gaining a better understanding of factors that contribute to underrepresentation of women in science will hopefully lead to a more conducive environment for female scientists in Sri Lanka and reduce the national brain drain.

Dr. Dilshani Sarathchandra, Assistant Professor, University of Idaho, U.S.A.

  • Nick Hart

    Is science a good thing? Of course, it is. Where would we be without it? But does it actually matter who does it, so long as it gets done and humanity benefits?

    Meanwhile, the assumption appears to be that as many women as men actually *want* to be scientists/engineers. This is unlikely to be true, for several reasons, including, as cited above, “early childhood socialization plays a significant role in girls’ and boys’ future interests and successes in science. Starting from birth, boys and girls are generally treated differently”.

    So is the author advocating that this should be changed? If so, how?

    • Di Sarathchandra

      Nick, whose science it is actually matters. Diverse groups, such as women and minorities, can bring in diverse perspectives to the practice of science. For example, think about Jane Goodall’s unique methodologies used to understand primate behavior; novel intimate approaches that weren’t even considered “objective” and “real” science when she first employed those methods, but have now become widely accepted and hence benefited science.

      As for individual “wants”, they are oftentimes driven by larger social-structural forces, some we may not be consciously thinking of/aware of. For instance, many women may choose biological sciences as opposed to physics or engineering, because that’s what women do/ because that’s where women have the greatest chances of success and survival/ because women like to help other people etc. etc., without realizing how their early childhood experiences, negative stereotypes, societal expectations, prevailing sociopolitical climates etc. may have affected those conditional beliefs. So, yeah, it’s plausible to argue that if the playing field is leveled off throughout the “science pipeline”, many more women would “want” to be scientists/engineers.

      • Fitzpatrick

        You mention brain drain in your article. I have always been fascinated by this aspect. What made you as an individual decide to take up a job in the US instead of coming back to SL?
        Did the fact that you are a woman influence this decision?

        • Di Sarathchandra

          As I mentioned above, unfortunately I don’t have reliable statistics yet to analyze any potential associations between gender and brain drain (something I hope to consider in my future research). If I were to speculate, I would say many Sri Lankan STEM graduates in the U.S. perceive better opportunities here in the U.S. (more public-private sector funding, larger research facilities, massive infrastructure, expertise, opportunities to collaborate, higher paying jobs, etc) and higher social and cultural capital (status, prestige). Do these things necessarily lead to better science? That I don’t know. (We would like to think scientists do science for the sake of uncovering facts about the our world/ the universe/ universes!; but at the end of the day humans are driven mostly by personal incentives…)
          Also, the U.S. has also been really successful in establishing an efficient graduate school system that attracts foreign students and provide them with career opportunities that eventually boost the U.S. economy. This system has been mutually beneficial to foreign graduates (like myself) and the U.S. economy. All the more reasons why the Sri Lankan government/private sector should invest much more concerted efforts to change the presumed “brain drain” to a “brain gain”, so to speak.

          • Fitzpatrick

            Thank you for your reply.
            I was more referring to if your gender influenced your decision as in individual not in general.
            You are right, at the end of the day we put our families, comfort above everything and that is the way it should be.

          • Di Sarathchandra

            It’s probably the nature of my academic training, which render individual experiences less important than numbers/probabilities, that made me avoid giving a direct answer to your question… Sorry about that!

          • Fitzpatrick

            ok. :-)
            As a academic myself, living in the USA having lived in Uk before moving to the US I would be interested in talking more about this, particularly the reasons for the brain drain and also looking into the few who did go back. Their reasons for going back and how they perceive their decision now with hindsight.

          • Di Sarathchandra

            Absolutely. I have been thinking about looking into the nature of STEM in/out migration for a future research project. Do connect with me on Twitter @disarathchandra:disqus if you are interested in chatting. And thanks for the feedback!

          • Dev

            Dear Fitzpatrick,

            A few weeks ago you claimed that you live in Sri Lanka:

            Nick Hart: “I live in Sri Lanka. Do you?”
            Fitzpatrick: “Yes I do.”

            Now you’re apparently “living in the USA having lived in Uk before moving to the US”.

            ROFL ! Are you starting to lose track of what you said under which bogus identity :-)

  • Di Sarathchandra

    Ayubowan! You have made some excellent observations and I thank you for that!
    As mentioned in my essay, the recent statistics available to us do suggest that female scientists have a stronger presence in Sri Lanka than most other countries in the region, although the numbers are still lower in traditionally male dominated fields… My understanding is that this gender divide is also occurring in relatively newer fields such as computer science/IT, fields that generally lead to higher paying careers. We also continue to see women underrepresented in the highest echelons of science, i.e., ministry of technology and research, among various science awards/grants/funding recipients, NSF?…

    Something I hadn’t thought about much and you point out very well is the strong support from kin/extended families that Sri Lankan women receive (such as your graduate student who was able to leave her children in the care of her parents). This should definitely be factored in as a predictor when investigating the Sri Lankan context and trying to understand the nature of in/out STEM migration. However, I do stand by my assertion that government policies should continue to enable more formalized/institutionalized support for women who do not have the benefit of tight-knit informal support networks.

    The question of why I haven’t returned is a tough one to swallow, partly because I do not really like the answers I give myself to this question. While not returning back to SL does reduce my legitimacy to even talk about this issue, I thought starting a conversation in a public forum like this might be a good way to gauge the various opinions; if nothing else, it seemed like a good academic exercise… I can probably come up with some reasons to justify staying in the US, but the most “romantic” one is the relative obscurity I feel and have come to relish in this country.

    • MA Huffman

      Di- I don’t think you lack any credibility here. You are part of the matrix of the issue you are investigating, and thus have an important contribution to make!

  • Di Sarathchandra

    Thanks Nick! You have raised some very interesting questions/concerns and I hope to address these in a future post. I’m very excited to see people engaging in this conversation, a topic that is easy to dismiss among the more urgent struggles of our day to day lives…

    • Nick Hart

      As a digression, you might want to look at Qatar Foundation ( http://www.qf.org.qa ). Although Qatar is massively wealthy because of oil and gas, the whole focus of QF is to create a ‘knowledge economy’ for when the oil and gas run out.

      One of its three ‘pillars’ is ensuring that all Qataris, plus everyone else who studies on its huge and growing campus, achieve their full potential, both intellectually and as content and productive members of society.

      Qatar has been able to achieve this in part because the country is small, easily ‘managed’, and not constrained by many of the impediments associated with the need for lowest-common-denominator political considerations.

      Could the same be said of Sri Lankahere are growing calls for national unity and the formal adoption of the English language, both of which would help SL create a similar knowledge-based orientation.

      The pursuit of excellence—in science, technology, the arts, whatever—depends as much on will, foresight, determination and ‘community spirit’ as financial means. Teach children English, chess and HTML coding and they will go far! Thoughts?

  • Di Sarathchandra

    I agree I have only touched a fraction of existing literature and that too from a very specific sub-discipline. Your response, pointing out some of the many ways in which my essay is insufficient, still strengthens the basic premise; that gender imbalance in education is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.
    I disagree that I have pointed fingers at poor people who funded my education. My intention was only to start a conversation about some of the larger structural constraints for women in science; most of these are just as true and problematic in the U.S. as in Sri Lanka.

    • MA Huffman

      Dear Di- Thank you for your clear response to my comments. I hope my limited perspective has helped you to further crystalize your ideas. I think you’re on the right track. I am sure we all understand that there are many avenues to investigate, none any less important than the other. Until we see where they lead none should be abandoned. Your life experiences give you a unique perspective and from that comes strength and the opportunity for new insights. Don’t give up until ‘your’ satisfied. Ayubowan!

      MA Huffman
      Primate Research Institute
      Kyoto University

  • MA Huffman

    Jane’s ‘anthropomorphism’ is now main stream in international primatology. The Japanese, male primatologists had a 10 year jump on her but her impact on the west deffinately had a positive impact on science that is still with us today. Not even only among primatologist, but almost every field of science today, her influence has gotten young people into science. It was Eastern culture and their view of man’s place in nature and the goals of a few Japanese scientists in the late 1940’s responsible for Japanese primatology, but it has often been critiqued that it was Jane’s gender and unique set of circumstances that led her to go against the grain of Western science to make the breakthroughs she did. The circumstance I elude to was Louis Leakey’s idea to send women in the wilderness to study the great
    apes, thinking they would do a better job than men, and the rest is
    history. So there you have it, culture and gender!

    cheers

    mike

  • Aia

    Very impressive article, like to see more of this type. Didn’t get read on time, hope would put up with my belated comment. Fed up with kind of political news items swamping this space, and reading the same type time and again makes one feel where are those people who could care about the country thinking this country for everyone who born and live here rather theirs only. She is not only in dearth of female scientists but visionary leaders, painfully from the time of independence. Particularly from the majority community, regardless of gender, who has the wisdom to see how good we can move forward as a nation, if we all pull together. Say it should be from majority, because minority leaders even if they are altruist and have wisdom their marching will not make any mileage in the political climate which SL is accustomed to, see recent example in Kathirgamar and Thiruchelvam. Their stance and believe have only made them the target of LTTE. We have not seen such a personality from the majority who advanced such policies saying we have got to take the minorities also on board to make everyone feels this is their county, even when their popularity was on high- it is really shameful. When you have instability in your country, brain drain is inevitable. If any, the smarter ones are the ones make the move first, regardless of which community they are from, may be for difference reasons of their own: didn’t want to be subject to discrimination, killed, nor fight a losing battle and so on, but ending up with same result. When clever men exodus happens, it is only natural clever women follow suit. Looking for them asking where are they now like pretending, do not we? They are everywhere and, their participation statistic has been intertwined with may be every other countries other than SL, I guess it is a reasonable and plausible assumption, but hard to dissect, since most of them would have naturalized. It is true the country’s situation had been the main cause of chasing our clever men and women away from our county, irrespective of races, and to expedite the rate of flow, some western countries have exploited the situation with skill, green card, refuge migrations. Few of them thought it was blessing in disguise, seems theirs is right, given the recent
    flaring up of tensions to other parts of the country. What I cited here is cause and effect.

    Having said the above, and despite the pogrom, war, gender discrimination, cultural barriers, greater family responsibility, etc. women in SL, I suppose,have done better; the 37% their participation rate as shown
    in the 2013 UNESCO survey is encouraging, hope it will further improve. Before read the article, I thought it was somewhere in the single digit, that is what it has been highlighted, sorry for my ignorance. Further, your reason
    to down play the significance of the 37% was no women won the president award for innovation in 2011 and 12, all six were men. I am not sure about those six but if 2013 and 14 saw all six awardees were women, that wouldn’t make men’s participation any inferior (rather than lesser). I am a bit confused with whether you make a quality or quantity comparison at that point. But then you kind of quote female scientists participation in natural science, medicine, agricultural science and engineering and technology as 40%, 46%, 38% and 27% respectively. Except Engineering, they fare better in all the other three, better than the statistic shown in the UNESCO’s survey. It is well known and, guess you know, how female smarter students in SL feel about pursuing a career in Engineering compared to Medicine, so I do not need to give further reason for the 10% drop to 27%. This has been the trend I guess even in developed countries that female student’s preference more inclined toward medicine than engineering. All in all, all women in SL are doing well, hope they will do even better. I am happy they make a big contribution in Medicine. I would like to see how the numbers were before the brain drain started, may be before 1983.

    I do not think those who are in overseas should feel too bad about being part of brain drain lot, even if they were one of them per se. Am not trying to generalize the situation but in most cases, fleeing from own country wasn’t their preferred choice but had to make; in that sense it was a great sacrifice – leaving one’s own habitat. I do not think majority of those end up in overseas would have moved even an inch if the things that they get in overseas were given to them in their own country, importantly their own safety. Those haven’t had such experience cannot imagine what it feel like waking up in the morning thinking “yes, I waked up alive today” and before thinking what would be unfolding for the day and so on hearing a helicopter’s sound ducking into the bunker- it was like living
    for the moment to moment. At some stage paranoia sets in, ridicules your own virtue, challenging would you persist even if you run the risk of losing your loved ones. Decision had to be made, and was made. Settling down in a new country itself is whole new experience and had been a great challenge for those never thought to ran
    away; rather than daunted by feelings of your own soil, relatives and people, holding very high positions in countries and performing their jobs in par with everyone else, whether in research, own profession or business is testament of the quality of education SL offers and the sheer resilient of the those brain drainers. They should feel proud about themselves making a useful contribution to mankind despite their background.

    For those who live in SL, we will have to export experts to other countries. It was a monumental mistake that SWRD introduced the language policy only to bail out himself from the political bankruptcy. Good to see the current rulers have accepted it was a mistake. Not sarcastic, it has been a good trade better than sending our women to ME countries. Just imagine for a moment, stop crying foul, if all living professionals and researchers of SL made had been stay put in SL, what could have been the situation, be real. The situation so dare even now
    that graduates unemployed more than three years have to go behind politicians who had not seen school after their Gr 8, to get a favorable push as against other unemployed. Do we have enough R&D facilities to cater for everyone, or hospitals and construction sites or are IT is in demand for that matter? Ironically, when our people like the author were kept high in foreign countries for their knowledge and education, our engineers have been working for Chinese contractors in our own country in the road projects but were not kept at such highs. Nothing wrong about working for them as contracts had been awarded to these nationals and it is part of the deal of the borrowing. Working for Chinese company and under paid although geographically in your own country doesn’t
    make one feel his/her brain hasn’t drained. Such persons working for them here not out of patriotism but for make a living, and would not give a damn about brain drain, if he or she be given a chance overseas. Then he or she will also be part of the brain drain. The priority is to get a job and feed your family, thinking brain drain at this juncture doesn’t make any sense. Developing countries do not have the luxury to talk about brain drain- be happy with what has been retained and see them be here, here for their working life. Say, someone goes overseas temporarily on a scholarships, and see how much being paid for an employee of similar competency, knowledge and qualification who does similar quantity of work. Would he/she return if the employer she/he worked for impressed with his/her work say the job is yours if you wanted- a win-win situation? Hard to resist, but a classic brain drain situation, having used every cents of SL up to that point.

    • Pragmatist2014

      Despite the unfair criticisms posted by some here at the author and others like her (and me) who have decided to live elsewhere, I share your opinion “They should feel proud about themselves making a useful contribution to mankind despite their background.”

      If Sri Lanka is to make serious progress in STEM areas on a scale that would have a substantial impact on the economy, the country must attract many (not necessarily all) folks like the author back to Sri Lanka to make it happen. In my view, several things must occur for that to happen.
      First, Sri Lanka must set out on a NEW path to become a nation that is inclusive of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity/religion/etc and provide opportunities based on merit. This requires policies, long-term plans and programs that are administered by institutions and people of high integrity with absolutely NO political interference. Without this basic framework many will see returning to Sri Lanka as a huge risk for themselves and their children’s future well being.

      As a first step, programs could be easily established for qualified STEM professionals to return and serve Sri Lanka on short-term assignments. This would be a good opportunity for them to contribute their knowledge as well as explore if a permanent move would work out. This requires careful follow through by SL embassies around the globe. I am a STEM professional with over 30 years of experience and a leader in my field. A few years ago government made an announcement that I thought was was such an initiative and I sent my response via email to the SL embassy. I got an acknowledgment after 2 months and have not heard since then.

      What is sorely needed is leadership with the right vision for Sri Lanka. It appears to me that the country is approaching a tipping point, beyond which the likelihood of such leadership emerging, say in the next 15 years, would be very slim.