Prof. Neelima M. Gupte has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Physics at IIT Madras for over two decades. Her research interests include non-linear dynamics, chaos and the study of networks. Prof. Gupte has been involved with the Women’s Forum at IIT-M for over ten years, has worked with the IUPAP working group for Women in Physics, and has often collaborated with the Women in Science initiative of the Indian Academy of Sciences, to organise events and activities. Readers may be familiar with her contribution to the book Lilavati’s Daughters published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Shivani Guptasarma and Nikhil Mulinti talk to her about issues women in STEM fields face, proactive measures that the institute has taken and her thoughts on research and beyond.
Nikhil: How do social perceptions create problems for women in research-based professions? Have you faced any particular hurdles?
NG: When I was studying B.Sc. in Bombay University, boys and girls were treated exactly the same. But while doing M.Sc. at IIT Bombay, one of my teachers once told me that as a woman going into research, I would do fine, and would even get a good Ph.D, but that in the hard sciences, women were never given jobs. This was a shock. After he told me this, I came back to my hostel and I collected a few girls, all of whom wanted to go ahead [with research], and asked them – does this mean we will never get employed, no matter what we do?
My teacher did not have bad intentions – I want to make this clear. He was just trying to tell me the reality. In fact, if you look at the way our department [at IIT Bombay] was then, it had one woman faculty member. So that was not exactly non-reflective of the situation at the time.
Then I had a discussion with my friends, and we concluded that even if what he was saying was true then, things could change. Which they did. I then finished my Ph.D., did my postdoc, got a job, started working, and then I had Ph.D. students of my own. My very first research student, as it happened, was a girl. And she had met this teacher of mine somewhere, who had told her the same thing. [We all laugh.]
Later, I met this teacher somewhere else, and I said I had to tell him that things had changed. He agreed, and in fact he was very nice, and invited me to come back and teach in our department at IIT-B. So things did change. But there are still many, many practical ways in which women really face a lot of problems.
“.. there are still many, many practical ways in which women really face a lot of problems.”
For example, I’m a physicist, my husband was a physicist. For us to get employment in the same place would take years. And here, I should say our IIT [Madras] was a real relief – not that my husband was employed here, he was employed elsewhere in Madras [at IMSc]. But at least, people in the Physics Department knew this and were encouraging about it. So things do change.
I will say this jokingly: It used to be a situation where highly competent and qualified people couldn’t get jobs because they were a couple; now, it has become a situation where institutions are in fact looking for couples. That is a positive change.
Nikhil: In Western countries, they feel that institutional conventions should be changed, but here, many feel that social perceptions need to be changed for more women to enter the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] fields. What do you think?
NG: I should say that institutional things more or less have changed. But social perceptions still haven’t. People now come into research from a very broad spectrum of backgrounds. For people who come from small places, their social perceptions are very different from what they are in the big cities. And I think one thing which institutions like ours can do for them – one of my students once asked me why I was telling her and her peers all this, and asked me to tell their parents instead! [We all laugh.]
“.. institutional things more or less have changed. But social perceptions still haven’t.”
So I think we should have more things like open houses, where parents can come… I mean, what do parents feel? They feel that their children should not suffer, right? That’s fair enough. So basically they need to see that it [research] is not such an unusual thing. Many people do it and they do fine. So they should feel that if their daughters do it they’ll also do fine.
Nikhil: Most girls who enter STEM fields come from urban areas rather than rural areas. How can we create interest in people in rural areas who may not be able to access open houses, workshops and so on, or may not have the habit of attending such events?
NG: If people cannot come, then we’ve to go there. When we do these Women in Science activities, it is held in a lot of places.
Also, in the rural areas, it is the local colleges that have the capacity to create awareness. Their teachers will be known to the people around there. When we, or others, come from somewhere else, they (students and parents) don’t feel comfortable with that and it might take time for us to connect with them. They then look at us and ask us what we are saying, when we have come from far off and are unaware of the local situation.
Nikhil: The percentage of women in engineering is very low compared to that in the natural sciences. Why do you think it’s the case?
NG: In IITs [only]. Go to any engineering college now, you’ll see may be more than 50% girls, for all you know. But, you come to [an] IIT – again it’s the old 10% or 12%; perhaps even less. So that is really a serious issue. In fact, you should tell me. Why is it like that?
Shivani: We keep discussing it, me and my friends. It pains us every day.
NG: But why does it happen?
Nikhil: There’s no reservation for women in IITs?
NG: See, girls really don’t need reservation. They just need encouragement.
Nikhil: Yes, but at least it enhances the number of women entering the institute. And, later it might actually give them quick support?
Shivani: It’s not only that girls try and are unable to enter. Even the number of girls who attempt the JEE is comparatively far less.
NG: It’s increasing. Not only that, now it’s a fairly substantial fraction. IITs give these statistics – that’s how I know this.
Shivani: It was 17–18% this year.
NG: Yeah. But the success rate is much lower compared to boys. So while they try, I don’t think they take it as seriously. Maybe they don’t get coached so intensively. That may be one of the reasons. How many girls would be allowed by their parents to go and stay in Kota for one year or two years? Or Hyderabad? Many boys do that. People will not allow them [girls]. Secondly, with many of the boys, families go and stay. That, I think, they will still not do for the girls. This is what I think; maybe I’m wrong.
So we cannot expect girls to do it without coaching or without that kind of coaching.
Nikhil: How does India compare with other countries in bringing women faculty into physics?
NG: Not too well. Problems are slightly different. For example, among B.Tech students there are maybe 10% girls in the IITs. Among the research scholars, it’s a healthy 30% . But then you find that there are very few faculty members, comparatively.
There was a conference on Women in Physics that I went to, in 2002 [the first IUPAP conference on Women in Physics in Paris; the Indian delegation’s report on the same can be found here]. Before that I took zero interest in the issue of women in science. I used to think that I am a scientist – whether I’m a man or a woman, it makes no difference. This conference really opened my eyes to how bad things really were. Somehow we had survived but so many people had simply not survived. What could be done about it? I should tell you that our IIT did something about it. When I came back, I wrote a letter to the then director, Professor Ananth. I said in my letter that I had been for this conference and wanted to tell him about it, and that the situation was really distressing. IIT has this meeting every month where Heads [of departments], Deans, everybody meets. So, Prof. Ananth’s response was to call me, and all the women faculty members, to this meeting and ask me to make a presentation.
“I used to think that I am a scientist – whether I’m a man or a woman, it makes no difference. This conference really opened my eyes to how bad things really were.”
So he called all of us [women faculty members] who were there then, which was a much smaller number than it is now. I made this presentation and I listed a lot of things. I said, there are these problems. So one thing which Prof. Ananth told us was that as far as infrastructural problems were concerned, we were to consider them solved. They would do whatever had to be done. And it was done.
Regarding faculty recruitment, I should say that since then, consistently, the number of women faculty has been increasing. I don’t know if they make a conscious effort or not, but I really don’t think women are discriminated against. You don’t know what happens on every interview committee, but from the way the number of women faculty has been going up, I think some effort has been made.
Now, I think everyone is conscious of what happens among the students also. A senior colleague told me this story. One day, just after our M.Sc. entrance was over, he said a colleague of his – who was then the head of the department – called him excitedly in the corridor and said they had admitted 18 boys that year, and nine of them were girls! [We all laugh.] I don’t know if this is true or not, but it is a good story. So that is the way people would think, you know.
In fact, I myself remember that in my early years in IIT, when you went to a faculty meeting, to the Senate, or anywhere, the way people would talk is, “See, the boys will do this, the boys will do that, the boys will whatever…” [Laughs] It’s no longer true. Everyone says “the students”, or “the boys and girls”. So the whole way of thinking really has changed. When you’re talking, you don’t think about women in science issues or being politically correct or anything. You talk the way you talk. And I think that thinking has changed. So that’s good.
“When you’re talking, you don’t think about women in science issues or being politically correct or anything. You talk the way you talk. And I think that thinking has changed.”
Nikhil: As you pointed out earlier, many women do their Ph.Ds but don’t actually get into faculty positions. What could be the reason? Marriage?
NG: It’s an interesting question. People say that it’s because of family responsibilities; people get married. One serious problem is that sometimes people move to remote places, where the opportunities to pursue an academic career are really limited, because their spouses are there. One of our students went to some place which is a little off Mangalore, and it became really hard for her. I mean, had she gone even to Bangalore, things would have been very easy.
I don’t know if you know from our website about this postdoctoral fellowship for women that we have. That was started exactly for this reason. So that women, even people who are teaching in colleges and so on, have that period when they can come, even during vacations, and can pursue research. And we’ve seen that make a difference.
Nikhil: Are you talking about the programme IIT Madras has, called Post-Doctoral Fellowship for Women with Break in Career? I believe you have guided one student under this programme. How did it help the student in her career and what was your experience about it?
NG: Actually this whole scheme was cooked up between Professor Krishnaiah – who was the Dean of Research at that time – and me. I received a mail from this student I was telling you about, and I thought something like this [fellowship] would really help. And I sent a mail to Prof. Krishnaiah, who constituted a small committee. I was on it, Professor Enakshi Bhattacharya was on it, and so were one or two of the male faculty.
First, there was this question of whether this scheme would be used at all. And from the first year itself, there was no problem at all. There were many applicants. There was this girl, who came and worked with me. She was an interesting case. She, in fact, was not sitting at home or anything. She had a proper faculty position in a university. It’s just that, due to various factors – I think marriage, children, because of all that – she had had a long gap in her research. I bumped into her at some conference, and I just happened to be talking to her at teatime and I told her about this. And she actually came with her family, who were very supportive. Her husband came here, her daughter was very small at that time, so her mother came with her. And they stayed very close to IIT.
She worked here for a year, and she really went back into her research. And she’s still in touch with me and she now does research, she has students, she has projects…so our Post-Doctoral Fellowship really made a difference.
Nikhil: Do you think these fellowships should be offered by all the departments?
NG: This is not confined to the physics department! This fellowship can be taken in any department. And people have taken it. And I think after this, they started IIT-M’s general post-doctoral fellowship also. But this [fellowship] is particularly helpful for people who have had breaks. Somebody who’s had a break cannot compete in the general scene. It’s difficult – they’ll be competing with people who haven’t had that break. So this is a very useful thing. And this is something which should be publicised. People should know that it exists.
“Somebody who’s had a break cannot compete in the general scene. It’s difficult – they’ll be competing with people who haven’t had that break.”
Nikhil: You were telling us about why many women are not able to continue their research after Ph.D…breaks in career being one reason.
NG: You know what people say – that it is family responsibility, etc., which actually do not permit women to pursue research. In this girl’s case [whom I guided for her Post-Doctoral work here], this is what it was. But one of the academies [the Indian Academy of Sciences; the report is here] actually did research on this. They got data for Indian women. And the women very, very clearly said that it was not family responsibilities which stopped them from pursuing research careers. What stopped them from pursuing research careers was the fact that they were not getting jobs. They said it completely clearly. And it came as a surprise to everyone. Because everyone thinks that it is because of families and so on. But the women said no. It was a very clear thing, it was a big survey. And it was a written one. People filled these questionnaires, they were properly analysed by social scientists and this was the result. So the question to ask is: why are the women not getting jobs?
“.. the question to ask is: why are the women not getting jobs?”
Shivani: Is it because of any prevailing prejudice in interview committees?
NG: Maybe. I’ll tell you one thing. I had been on an interview committee in one of the universities, where the vice chancellor told me something very interesting. He said that on their interview committees, they always had at least one woman. They had one person from a university, one from an IIT, and one from an NIT. So that broad spectrum is covered. He said in my case I had done a good duty that day, being both from an IIT and a woman. And I thought that was a very positive thing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this musician test. Dr. Meera Chandrashekhar told me this story. We had this conference in the Pan-IIT. And Prof. Meera, she couldn’t come there, but she sent her talk, wherein she told a good story. It’s actually a statistic. Some people were conducting auditions for an orchestra. Obviously, the musicians can be men as well as women; they were looking for violinists. A violinist can be a woman, it can be a man. They conducted the audition from behind a curtain – that is, the selectors couldn’t see who was playing, they could just hear the music. As a result, the number of women who got selected just rose.
Shivani: I heard of a similar story where they did a test in which they gave CVs which were identical to different committees, but they changed the name on top. They changed the male name to a female one and the person wasn’t selected. Everything else was exactly the same.
NG: Yes, I know that that story also, and it made a huge difference, right? Look, I’ll ask you a question. When you went into your first year class, did you have any women teachers?
Nikhil: You were my first woman teacher in IIT. I had [women] teachers until my tenth class. In my inter, I did not have even one single woman teacher. And in IIT you were the only woman teacher I had. You were teaching PH1020.
NG: Okay. [Chuckles]
Shivani: I had one in the first semester for graphic art and one for Chemistry. Every time we get a female teacher, we – my friends and I – make it a point to note and be happy about, because it is really a rare thing.
NG: Well, I remember once going into a first year class and there were something like five girls there. Of course, they were all sitting huddled together. When I entered the class, they really smiled at me. I could see that the tension was removed.
There is one thing which people say, which is that the class treats women and men teachers differently. Now, for me it doesn’t happen too much, because I’ve taught for many years. So the seniority helps. They can also make out that this is not a junior teacher. But for younger teachers, I don’t know; I mean, I think students might actually perceive that they are not as good teachers as they really are. Now you should tell me if it’s true.
Shivani: I always defend female teachers who are strict in that way, because I think probably they feel that if they’re not strict, the class won’t take them seriously. It’s a class full of boys and they might have learnt by experience that they need to be that way.
NG: That’s also true. We are stricter than we would normally be, if we were not confronted by a class which has 85 boys and 5 girls.
Nikhil: Would another issue be funding? Do women faculty face any difficulty in obtaining funds for research?
NG: Not that I know of. They might have difficulty in extracting space – that happens. That way our funding agencies are fairly unbiased. Within departments etc., there might be some problems.
Nikhil: You’ve worked at IITM for over two decades — what changes have you noticed in the institute, with regard to research?
NG: It has undergone a huge change. When I came here, it already had a big faculty, and the actual number of people who did research was not small. But as a fraction of the whole, it was much less than it is now. The other thing I felt, at least as a junior faculty member, was that IIT also did not pay any attention to the fact that you need time to do research. I mean, they wanted us to do research but the number of ways in which they used to take away our time was much larger. It still takes away more time than it should, but it’s not as bad. Especially the way in which people who’ve just joined are treated. For example, if I teach now, it doesn’t take a huge fraction of my time. I’ve taught for many years. I know how to teach. I’ve also taught many courses; that’s different from teaching new courses every time. In the beginning obviously, every course you teach is a new course. So at that point, people need more time. And I think there is a little more awareness of this now, although I would still say they need to do more. You cannot ask people to compete with everybody in the world. But still, there are many things which could be done to help the faculty here have more time and more facilities.
“In the beginning obviously, every course you teach is a new course. So at that point, people need more time.”
Nikhil: About your research, how has research in the field of nonlinear dynamics and chaos evolved in India? In our research about the field in the country, we find that there exists a small centre of nonlinear dynamics in Bharathidasan University in Trichy.
NG: Bharathidasan is one of the few places which actually has a centre which is named. But there are groups of that size in many places, not necessarily called centres for nonlinear dynamics. If you consider the amount of work which is done in Bharathidasan and what is done here, it would be of the same order or more. It’s just that we are not called a centre. And there are many places like that. But the point is that, in India, it was a new thing. In the sense, the work [in nonlinear dynamics] really started in the mid- to late eighties. Whereas, if you take particle physics, condensed matter, solid-state physics, material science, lasers – they’ve been there for a long time.
So the community actually has grown, pretty fast. The only thing is, it’s still not of the size of these communities. The opportunities for discussion are directly proportional to the size of the community. But we have one great advantage in the nonlinear dynamics community – it really cooperates. We finally have more activity than much more established fields, simply because of the cooperative effort.
“The opportunities for discussion are directly proportional to the size of the community. But we have one great advantage in the nonlinear dynamics community – it really cooperates.”
The other thing is that now nonlinear dynamics has also a very serious overlap with fields like complex systems and statistical mechanics. So those communities are actually older communities – not complex systems, that’s a new community, but it has underpinnings in statistical mechanics. And that community is a little larger than us. Therefore, we actually have very good cooperation from that community also.
While the community is small it actually does a lot of things. The SERC schools on nonlinear dynamics, for instance. This year it was the fourth school in the third cycle. This is something to which research scholars go every year. When the DST started funding us, they asked what the size of this community was, and whether we would be able to run a school year after year. Because that really tells you how many research scholars there are in the field. Without the research scholars, who will go to the school? Now we have successfully run this school for twelve years. Each time it takes forty students formally, plus we almost always have another twenty or thirty who are informally associated with the school. And there are very few people who have actually been to two schools, so that means that this has taught something like 800 to 900 research scholars.
But when it comes to faculty hiring, all these students are still at a disadvantage. Because people hire people like themselves. So unless the faculty members are already there, it becomes very hard for other younger faculty to get hired. They get asked whom they will collaborate with. People are not known to you because they are in different fields. So all those factors come in – not just here, but all over the world.
We had a big conference last July, which was held here. The year before that we had another big conference at the University of Hyderabad where these issues were discussed by people from all over the world – including very senior, very well-known scientists. I was interested to note that because of these things which I have told you – the community is small, the research scholars’ placement becomes more difficult – recognition of activities and recognition of performance becomes difficult, the question of what do people do afterwards, is the research recognised…these are worldwide problems for this community, not just confined to our country.
“.. these are worldwide problems for this community, not just confined to our country.”
I actually didn’t work in nonlinear dynamics to start with. When I first started, somebody I used to work with and who in fact is a very good friend told me that I was going off into a new area in which it would be very difficult for me to find recognition. Because people look at your work, and your work is very good but they don’t understand it because they don’t have background in your area. They said if I worked in more conventional areas I would find that my work would be recognised more.
That was good advice. Except that I listened to it and decided not to take it, and to work in whatever I am interested in. If people recognise it – good! Because finally we do research for our own interest. Nobody wants not to be not recognized, but that cannot be your primary motivation. But on the other hand it’s not fair. Our generation put up with it but it should not happen to the next generation. There should be enough people and enough awareness that this is an important area and it has applications in everything from climate to neuroscience. It’s not just the applications which are important. If you are going to apply something, first you need to have theoretical development. If there is no theoretical development, what are you going to apply? So something which is so important, so interdisciplinary, should have recognition.
“.. finally we do research for our own interest. Nobody wants not to be not recognized, but that cannot be your primary motivation.”
“.. this is an important area and it has applications in everything from climate to neuroscience”
“It’s not just the applications which are important. If you are going to apply something, first you need to have theoretical development. If there is no theoretical development, what are you going to apply?”
Prof. Gupte would be happy to receive suggestions about, and discuss, other steps that may be taken to encourage women students. She can be reached at [email protected].