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“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.