Science has always been a male-dominated arena since time immemorial. Moreover, even the women who made their mark in the field of scientific studies were not accredited for their valuable contribution. Hence, for every major achievement, discovery, and invention, it was prominent and influential men who were recognised, irrespective of the reality of the breakthrough.
In India, even today, most women are not recognised for their hard work and contribution to the cauldron of talent. Firstly, ours is a thoroughly structured patriarchal society. Secondly, most of the people in the country lie below the basic level of literacy. Factors like these further lead to ignorance and dissent, in terms of accepting new ideas and appreciating people who break the age-old stereotypes.
For instance, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in 2003 was headed by a group of women, about whom very little is known. It was as late as 2015 when detailed articles about these women started doing the rounds, drawing the attention of the urban middle classes.
Nowadays, although a greater number of women are pursuing science degrees, there is still a boundary that deprives them from moving ahead and pursuing a career in this field. Thus, it is high time that we take note of the women who broke the glass ceiling and made their way to the top, over the years.
Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923): Kadambini Ganguly was the first woman graduate of the British Empire and the first woman physician from South Asia who was trained in western medical practice. She graduated from the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital in 1886.
Anandi Gopal Joshi (1865-1887): Also known as Anandibai, she was one of the first Indian women to study and engage in western medicine. She was also the first Indian woman to have studied medicine from a western university – in Philadelphia. However, early life was riddled with struggles. She was married off at the tender age of nine and she lost her newborn child due to lack of available medical support. This, many believe, was the turning point in her life, which made her yearn for a degree in modern medicine.
Rajeswari Chatterjee (1922-2010): She was the first female scientist to have spearheaded the fields of antennae engineering and microwave engineering in India. She worked at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, after completing her MS in electrical engineering from Michigan University. During her appointment, she was the only woman among the faculty in the Indian Institute of Science.
E.K. Janaki Ammal (1897-1984): Breaking the barriers in the 1900s, Ammal became the director-general of the Botanical Survey of India. She also worked in the United Kingdom and contributed to scientific research in the country during that time. She was a researcher in phytogeography and cytogenetics. She was also a founding fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Anna Mani (1918-2001): Anna Mani was the deputy director general of the Indian Meteorological Department. She attained her science degree from the Imperial College in London. She authored two books on solar radiation, which were published in the early 1980s. Her work focused on radiation, atmospheric electricity, and the ozone layer. She was the only woman scientist to have worked alongside C.V. Raman.
Asima Chatterjee (1917-2006): She was the first woman in the country to be awarded the degree of doctor of science from an Indian university. She received the degree of D.Sc. from the University of Calcutta in 1944. Chatterjee was the first woman president of the Indian Science Congress. She made extensive contributions to organic chemistry and phytochemistry. Her notable areas of research were in vinca alkaloids and anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs.
Indira Hinduja: This phenomenal gynaecologist was the first person to have delivered a test tube baby in the country, after introducing the gamete intra-fallopian transfer. Her works have been published in numerous national and international science journals.
Tessy Thomas: Popularly known as the ‘missile woman of India’, Tessy Thomas is one of the most senior experts in ballistic missiles. She is the first woman leader of a missile team in the country, which is called Agniputri. She was the project director for the Agni-IV and Agni-V missiles at the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and worked on the development of the missile from the very first stage to the last. During her 24 years in the DRDO, she contributed to mission design, inertial navigation, guidance control, and trajectory stimulation.
Darshan Ranganathan (1941-2001): Being a renowned organic chemist, she made notable progressions in the fields of molecular design, protein folding, chemical simulation of key biological processes, supramolecular assemblies, synthesis of nanotubes, and synthesis of functional hybrid peptide. Her extensive work formed a concrete base for many vital scientific studies.
Aditi Pant (??-Present): Although not known to be a popular field of study in India, Pant went on to become an oceanographer. She was the first Indian woman to travel to Antarctica to study oceanography and geology, as a part of the Indian expedition in 1983.
Prerna Sharma (??-Present): At the age of 29, she became an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Prerna Sharma was featured on the Forbes’ 30-under-30 India list of people who are making headway in their professional fields. Her work is focussed on soft condensed matter like colloids and emulsions. She was also a part of the team that made a breakthrough in two-dimensional physics.
Ruchi Sanghvi (1982 – Present): This young lady was the first woman engineer who was called in to be a part of the team that leads one of the biggest social media platforms, Facebook. Sanghvi joined Facebook in 2005. Not only did she make a breakthrough with this achievement, but she also went on to become the project manager within a year of her joining. She was instrumental in enforcing the privacy regulations and news feed on Facebook.
These feisty scientists made their way by crossing numerous hurdles. However, it must be remembered that these women garnered and made use of certain social agencies in order to be able to break free from their cages. Millions of women who aspire to be scientists are either not allowed to pursue their dreams or are silenced and sidelined when they come up with advancements.
In order to make sure that women are recognised for their achievements and are not restrained, we must step forward and acknowledge their presence in academia. Lack of visibility is the major restraining factor, which must be challenged . There is no development in the truest sense of the term if there is no equality and justice in terms of the opportunities offered.