NEW DELHI: A group of more than 150 scientists from across the country has spoken out against sexual harassment against women in scientific laboratories, noting that research in India, particularly its higher echelons, remains predominantly the preserve of men.
A statement, signed by 165 scientists, calls upon Indian scientists to support those who have accused a professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Life Sciences of sexual harassment.
"We call upon Indian scientists, and women scientists in particular, to support the young complainants' quest for justice, and to further this effort to publicly acknowledge and spread awareness on this extremely serious issue," the letter reads.
The scientists also emphasise that sexual misconduct should not only be condemned.
It should also invite black-listing from serving on scientific committees, receiving funding, awards and election to academies.
The petitioners include scientists from JNU as well as several leading institutes across the country such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science.
"The aim of the letter is to bring awareness among scientists about the problems faced by some women scientists at academic institutions and to show solidarity with women faculty/students who garner courage to speak out and often feel pressure to withdraw complaint(as is the case at hand)," Riddhi Shah from JNU's School of Physical Sciences told PTI.
Asked about how prevalent sexual harassment was at scientific institutions, she said she did not have any factual data.
"But from my past experience being on a women cell, I do know that it does happen in some labs as students are especially vulnerable when they work for research for long hours especially at night.
" Most signatories to the statement, Shah added, do not know these students but want to show solidarity and help them.
"I hope that this movement will succeed in restoring a conducive environment to continue teaching and research activities by women in the science labs," a retired scientist from JNU's School of Life Science added.
Discussing allegations of sexual harassment against the JNU professor, she said, "The administration should come forward to punish such elements in the system and take stern action against him." "JNU is a well acclaimed institution which has maintained a high standard of research and teaching.
Therefore, it is very important that we should never encourage these social evils who are trying to spoil the academic environment," she told PTI.
The petition notes that while sexual harassment is not unique to the scientific establishment, some features of how science is organised makes its "authority structure especially perilous to women".
"That the alleged incidents span several years and multiple victims, all students/project employees, points to a pattern that appears to be specific to the nature of working conditions for women in scientific labs in India," say the scientists.
Although not every science lab in the country is an unsafe space for women, to think of this as an isolated case of an individual wrongdoing would be an oversimplification and an understatement of the problem, they assert.
"Scientific research in India, particularly its higher echelons, remain predominantly the preserve of men.
"What adds to this power and authority is the need for mobilising large amounts of funding required for experimental research which the scientist or laboratory head provides," the letter states.
The absence of women in decision making bodies, their lack of adequate representation in committees and academies all come together to create an environment in which women and their concerns all appear marginal to the "serious business" of the Scientific Enterprise, it says.
The scientists note that while the growing numbers of women in the university has encouraged serious reflections and engagements with the gender question in humanities and social sciences, the world of science has remained unaffected and unwilling to question its ways of doing things.
They observe that with the numbers of women enrolling for science degrees often exceeding that of men in recent years, many of whom aspire for careers in scientific research, there is urgent need for Indian science to address issues of sexism, prejudice and harassment.
"It is time that Indian science woke up to its changing social reality and gives up its business-as-usual attitude.
It is also time to hear from the Indian science academies and funding bodies clear policies of inclusion and representation," the letter reads.