Engaging Women Scientists and Engineers in India with Pushpalatha Murthy

Pushpalatha Murthy

Pushpalatha MurthyIn September 2014, Prof. Pushpalatha “Pushpa” Murthy from the National Science Foundation delivered a series of professional skills and career advancement workshops for women scientists and engineers in India. The workshops were conducted by Prof. Geraldine Richmond (University of Oregon), Prof. Laura Greene (University of Illinois) and Prof. Pushpa Murthy, with financial support from the Government of India. These workshops offer career guidance, empowerment and professional support for women scientists.

We interviewed Prof. Pushpa Murthy to gain insight into these workshops and how they help women scientists.

How did the workshop develop?

The workshops were developed as a result of discussions collaboration between Geri Richmond, the founder of COACh, an organization working to increase the success of women scientists through special programming, and the government of India. The project to conduct the workshops was in the making for many years.   The USA and Indian governments have been discussing many STEM issues including those surrounding the challenges faced by women in science and engineering and exploring potential collaborations.  Geri had been approached by the Government of India to design and conduct career advancement workshops and she reached out to me and asked for my participation.

This particular series of workshops was conceived as a partnership between the two governments, the COACh program and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum.

More than 100 women scientists and engineers participated in the workshops conducted in Delhi and Bangalore. The Indian government sent invitations to a number of universities and research institutions to nominate women scientists and engineers to participate in the workshops. The participants represented a diversity of experiences, geographic regions and age groups.

Because of the success of the first set of workshops, two more workshops were scheduled for August 2015, one in Mumbai and one in Gawhati.

What is the focus of the workshops and how are they delivered?

The workshops covered a range of topics related to career advancement including, career launch and acceleration, factors that impact women’s careers, making effective presentations, the art of effective negotiation, career-life balance, and career mentoring. In “Factors that impact women’s careers,” we discuss the literature that analyzes the slow progress of women through their academic career and the actors that are impeding the progress. The awareness of the challenges that women scientist and engineers face in their careers and the impact that this has on their career advancement is not generally recognized or well understood. Most of the research on this topic have been conducted in the United States and even here many of the factors that impede the progress of women persist. Many of the issues faced by women in science are common regardless of their country of residency. Women in science and engineering careers, as well as in other fields, often feel isolated, their contributions are ignored and their accomplishments are undervalued, especially when it comes to advancements such as promotions and tenure. Women in other countries are very interested in this research and want to know how the data applies to their situation. What we discovered in our conversations is that many of the factors are global rather than regional issues. We hope that this knowledge will make them feel less isolated and once they are aware of the research findings on this topic we hope that they are better equipped to understand, discuss and address these challenges.

A workshop that focuses on “Career Launch and Acceleration,” tackles issues such launching a scientific career and ways to develop and accelerate it moving forward. The workshop covers topics such as preparing for interviews, writing resumes, and being aware of evaluation and promotion criteria in their institutions. By being fully informed of how success is evaluated at their institution, women can be better prepared and more successful at promotion opportunities. Another workshop on “The Art of Effective Negotiation” attempts to help women become comfortable with negotiating teaching loads, laboratory needs, salaries, and promotions. A workshop on leadership talks about getting ready to assume leadership positions.

All the workshops are highly interactive; they include short presentations, lots of breakout group discussions and sharing of ideas and opinions. The speakers are both local and global academics and government representatives. Because these workshops are for women and run largely by women, the format enables participants to meet other women scientists, network and feel comfortable discussing sensitive issues. The best part was that we learned a lot from the participants in these workshops, it has been very educational for us.

What are some of the unique challenges faced by women scientists in India?

Generally speaking, women scientists face similar challenges all over the world. In India, women are expected to focus on their families and children so women applicants are often asked about marriage and children and how she plans to take care of them. It is illegal to ask these questions during interviews in the USA, but not so in India. Other issues they mentioned include the feeling of isolation, their work being undervalued, career-life balance issues and harassment. The laws governing all these issues are not in place so challenging these obstacles is more difficult. Yet, in spite of these odds, the fact that we were talking to a roomful of accomplished, smart, women is proof that they are persevering and succeeding.

Some say that science is above gender and that any women who would like to succeed can. Do you agree with this statement?

I don’t agree with this statement because the data and literature on this subject show that women face unique hardships. The practice of science is the same, but it is the manner by which your work is evaluated and recognized that creates the gap. Research shows that the advancement of women in STEM fields is negatively impacted by many external societal and institutional factors that are unrelated to the capability, interest, and skills of women.  Even today, despite numerous studies published in this area, there are many who are not aware of the issues women face in being taken seriously and how their work is not evaluated, published, funded and rewarded at rates similar to men of similar skills and accomplishment. In today’s climate, a woman has to work much harder than a man to get the same recognition, salary, promotion or rank.

Please tell me about your work at NSF in this area.

I am a Program Director of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the oldest and the largest program at NSF. The program selects and financially supports students who have the potential to be outstanding scientists. I have worked on outreach to historically black universities because of underrepresentation of black men and women in science and engineering and this has been very rewarding. This is my third year at the NSF; I have learned a lot and greatly enjoyed my stay here.