Calling out gender bias in STEM | Rukhmabai Fellowship

August 2021

Calling Out Gender Bias In STEM

From very early on, Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan became aware of the passive yet glaring ways in which women in academia were being held back. She co-founded BiasWatchIndia to bring in some accountability.
Aisiri Amin

It was a curiosity about the natural world that sparked Dr Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan’s interest in biology and led her to eventually becoming an EMBL Australia Group Leader at the Single Molecule Science unit at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Born in Chennai and brought up in Pondicherry, Vaishnavi’s interest in science was nurtured by her parents. “If you don’t have an encouraging home environment, it can be damaging, especially for girls,” she said. Her mother, Janakavalli Ananthanarayanan gushed with pride about Vaishnavi’s independence. “You know, we haven’t paid for anything apart from food. She always got scholarships.” She added, “If you let them choose their path, they do very well.”

From very early in her student life, Vaishnavi was aware of the disadvantages girls faced in the education system.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM is rooted in the gender bias in schools. This bias can range from teachers discouraging girls from pursing science to the subtle preferential bias towards the cisgender-heterosexual males

For instance, Vaishnavi topped most of her classes but in class 12 she was asked to share ‘Best Student Award’ for that year’s topper with a boy, even though he had scored less than her.

“They were going to give it to the boy, but someone fought for me. The principal said it was done so that boys don’t feel discouraged, which was bizarre.” Would they have done it if it was the other way round, she wondered.

After school, Vaishnavi enrolled in an integrated M.Sc. in Biological Sciences, B.E. Computer Science dual degree program at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in Pilani, Goa.

“For such entrance exams, you need coaching. But not many girls’ parents want to spend on it because they think she will get married so what’s the use of studying engineering at these premier institutes?” Vaishnavi said.

Hence, with the dominance of cis-het males, misogyny was rampant in the college. Glorification of the toxic behaviors in popular culture has a ripple effect in campuses across India, Vaishnavi added. Her foray into academia and research was full of great mentors, colleagues and opportunities, which only made her more aware of how debilitating it could be to not have that support system.

Starting Her Lab And Making A Place In Academia

With her husband, Sumeet Yamdagni, and their cats

Vaishnavi did her PhD in Biophysics at Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden, Germany under the mentorship of biophysicist, Dr Iva Tolić. In 2014, Vaishnavi received the INSPIRE Faculty Fellowship from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), India, and started her lab at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. She went on to become an Assistant Professor at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering at IISc.

She received the EMBO Young Investigator Award and the Wellcome Trust/DBT – India Alliance Intermediate Fellowship in 2019.

Talking briefly about her research she said, “We are trying to answer how the cytoskeleton and motor proteins bring about a cellular organisation. This is the theme that has been apparent during my PhD, but also at IISc. In Australia, I am expanding on this.”

Dr Siddharth Jhunjhunwala, assistant professor at IISc and a friend, said Vaishnavi is the mentor who always stepped up and showed how things are done. “She is very patient as a mentor. She would spend time with students, take them through her experimental work and teach how to analyse data which not many do.”

Vaishnavi’s colleague at IISc, Dr Sandhya S. Visweswariah called her “an exceptional individual with absolute clarity with what she wants to do.” While Vaishnavi refers to her as a mentor, Prof Visweswariah said with a laugh, “It was really easy to mentor her because she didn’t need it.”

Gender bias and need for allies in STEM

Although in academia Vaishnavi found supportive peers and mentors, she soon realised that it can be an isolating place, especially for women. She constantly felt like her presence had to be justified, was undermined daily, and had to invest mental and physical energy in fighting biases that men didn’t have to face.

Vaishnavi recalls subtle instances such as the accounts section at IISc asking her to get a signature from her “Sir” when she enquired about one of her bills. “I am the Sir,” she replied.

In another instance, a senior researcher to whom she had introduced herself, would ignore her whenever he came across her. “When I was with a male colleague, he would say hello to him but still ignore me. That made me feel like I wasn’t equal,” she said.

Dr Jhunjhunwala, the colleague in question, said he didn’t notice at first but after Vaishnavi pointed it out he was embarrassed on the professor’s behalf. “Having the conversation with her made me understand the gender biases that women in academia regularly face. Male faculty members often don’t even think or notice these issues as they don’t have to deal with them. But, it’s on us to realise our privilege and do better. ”

Finding mentors, like-minded peers and a community to lean on is imperative to making advancements in academia. However, it’s often an exhaustive path when the space is not designed to help you.

“If anything, it is designed to get you out. To be able to make it through, you need allies. I was fortunate to have Iva and Sandhya,” Vaishnavi said.

Echoing her views, Prof. Visweswariah says, “When you go up the ladder, the numbers dwindle. So, men see only men. When you enter, you never really know what is expected of you to be able to achieve what you’re capable of. So, having someone to guide you can make all the difference.h

Challenging misogyny through BiasWatchIndia

Apart from research, Vaishnavi is well-known in academia for her initiative BiasWatchIndia which she co-founded with Dr. Shruti Muralidhar in June 2020. It all started with Shruti, a postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, tweeting about BiasWatch-Neuro, an organisation that documents the ratio of women speakers in neuroscience conferences across the world, and asking if it’s possible to do something similar in Indian academia.

Vaishnavi was quick to get in touch and used her grant money from the EMBO Young Investigator Award to start the initiative, BiasWatchIndia.

“There is implicit and explicit discrimination against having women speakers. Typically men would make it a ‘old boys club’ and invite their friends, which meant more men. I’ve been in faculty meetings where I was the only woman,” she said.

Earlier Vaishnavi had spoken about the need for more women in IISc and has been invested in the cause for a while. “When I was there, I think only 7% of faculty members were women. So I was acutely aware of how low the representation was.”

BiasWatchIndia documents women’s representation and combats gender-biased panels in Indian Science conferences, meetings, and talks. They start by looking at conferences, speaker lists and checking the number of women speakers. Then for that number to make sense, they find out the percentage of women in the specific area, compare them and put up their details on their Twitter page and website.

This information about the number of women in a particular area is not publicly available. So Vaishnavi and Shruti visit websites of institutes individually, and collate information, which can be a difficult process.

Although they did get a lot of support, they also raised some eyebrows. “But when we hear about people being worried about getting called out by BiasWatchIndia and changing their speaker ratios, that feels good,” Vaishnavi said.

Prof Visweswariah notes that it takes a lot of courage to call people out and shake up the system. “It is possible because she is sure of herself as an individual and a scientist. Moreover, people are now paying attention to biases in conferences.”

When Vaishnavi entered academia, her father, Ananthanarayanan, who is an engineer, was worried about the gender bias that she would have to face in STEM, which she did. “Now she is fighting it through BiasWatchIndia and hopefully making it a little easier for others,” he said proudly.

To make academia a more inclusive space, implementing accountability and transparency is a crucial step forward. Vaishnavi advocates for mandating annual gender audits by funding bodies of Indian institutes to make public the number of women that they employ and enrol so that mere tokenism can’t be passed off as gender representation.

“You owe it to the women paying taxes, to be honest about how many women you have in academia,” Vaishnavi said.

Defending her PhD in 2014

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