09/05/2017 4:20 PM IST | Updated 09/05/2017 4:22 PM IST

Why India's Women Astronomers Are Struggling To Reach The Stars

Maternity leave is a key reason.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images

Of the 12,662 members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), only 16.6% are women. The numbers are even more dismal for India: women form a mere 9% of the 282 Indian members of IAU.

These statistics came up on Monday at the 99th meeting of the executive committee of IAU with members from 101 nations, The Indian Express reported.

The main reason behind the poor representation of women in astronomy is decades of discrimination in a traditionally male-dominated field. In the early 1940s, roughly 11% IAU members were women. In the last seven decades the numbers have doubled, but there's still a long way to go.

According to Somak Roy Chowdhury, director of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), many women find it difficult to get back to work after taking a break due to personal reasons. In spite of the IUCAA forming a working group to address gender disparity a few years ago, the situation does not seem to have improved.

"It is always expected that women will take a break due to domestic issues," Roy Chowdhury told The Indian Express. "In a competitive world, a pause for a year means one is out of the flow."

"In our discussions with PhD students and postdoctoral fellows we found that maternity leave is cited as one of the main reasons why women astronomers are often discouraged to take up top faculty positions with astronomy institutions," added radio astronomer Preeti Kharb.

The attrition rate is also reflected in the number of students of astronomy who end up joining top faculty positions in universities and research institutes in the country. If 30-35% students of astronomy are women, only 10-12% of them make it into academia.

In 2014, a photograph of women administration staff celebrating the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in saris went viral, which, in turn, made the unseen faces behind a number of space science programmes in India visible.

From Ritu Karidhal and Nandini Harinath, deputy operations directors of MOM, to Anuradha TK, Programme Director at ISRO satellite centre to GC Anupama and Annapurni Subramaniam of Bengaluru's Indian Institute of Astrophysics, many women scientists have come into the media limelight since then.

The list of women scientists in India whose work has global resonances is long and august, though seldom in the public discourse. Unfortunately, that's also the case with most of the international science community.

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