Our institutions are very patriarchal: WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan

Dr. Swaminathan says she had faced many kinds of challenges and biases during her ICMR stint.

She is counted among the country’s top scientists and public health experts, but for Soumya Swaminathan, who is the Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization and the former Director General (DG) of India’s top medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research, it wasn’t always easy to be heard as a young researcher, and a woman at that. She was often “talked down to” or had her ideas dismissed, Dr. Swaminathan recounted before a global audience at an event on Tuesday.

“I was lucky perhaps that during my school, college days or right through education, even when I was doing my MD, I never felt that I was treated differently as a girl or a woman. Perhaps that is very unusual. It was only after I started my career in a government research institution that I experienced the culture of a male-dominated committee room. That’s when you felt you were being talked down to or made fun of almost. And then you become diffident of expressing your opinion the next time. I was in my thirties,” Dr. Swaminathan said about her time at ICMR, where she was first a part of the Tuberculosis Research Centre in Chennai, later rose to become its Director, and finally the head of the ICMR in New Delhi.

“I was not taken seriously; I was always told what to do, and if I had ideas, they would be shot down. I think that is the way many of our institutions function. They are very patriarchal,” she said at the fourth Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, 2020, which is being organised online. The conference that was instituted in 2017 serves as a rallying point for gender equity in health.

“It is more difficult for women researchers to get their grants approved, significantly smaller portion of research grants go to women, and women also have difficulties in getting their results published if you are from developing countries in journals because of perceived biases. I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases,” Dr. Swaminathan said, adding that this is prevalent even today, where women have a tougher time defending their grant proposals because they are treated differently from male scientists.

Taking up on the theme of the conference, Dr. Swaminathan spoke of the inter-disciplinary approach she adopted as the DG, ICMR, including listening to nurses and not just doctors, as well as social workers, and strengthening the social and behavioural sciences as an element of medical research, and ensuring her staff were exposed to the concerns of the LGBTQI community.

The pandemic has brought to the fore several gaps in equal representation of women in decision-making in national and global bodies constituted to develop a response to health crises in general and COVID-19 in particular.

A study published in the British Medical Journal on October 1 and authored by Kim Robin Van Daalen, Csongor Bajnoczki and Maisoon Chowdhury, et al, highlights that while “women comprise 70% of the global health workforce, they hold only 25% of senior decision-making roles”. The study is titled, “Symptoms of a broken system: the gender gaps in COVID-19 decision making”.

The study analysed COVID-19 task forces and expert committees constituted by 87 countries and found that 85.2% of of 115 identified COVID-19 decision-making and expert task forces had mostly men as members, while a mere 3.5% of these bodies had gender parity. India too performs poorly — it was two women and 14 men in its COVID-19 Task Force, that is, a mere 14.3% of the members are women.

The study argues for a greater representation from the entire gender spectrum and not just male-female binaries, as well as across ethnic, racial, cultural, geographic and disability groups.

It also discusses the paradox presented by COVID-19 — that while women bear the worst brunt of the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, they are also missing from policy bodies.

UN Women’s rapid assessment surveys in Asia Pacific to study the gender impact of COVID-19 shows that women in Bangladesh and Pakistan, are less likely to receive information about COVID-19 than men because of differences in cellphone ownership, Internet access and educational attainment. Women in Bangladesh had to wait longer to access health services and it is also more difficult to get medical supplies, hygiene products and food. In Nepal (65% women and 59% men), Bangladesh (83% women and 14% men) and Philippines (51% women and 34% men), a far greater number of women in formal sectors lost their jobs as compared to men.

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