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Fall 2007

Volume 36
Number 2

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Digital Pathways Toward Scientific Careers for Women in Kerala, India
By Meredith Anderson, doctoral candidate in sociology, Louisiana State University

Female Students in India  

Women and men receive advanced degrees at a similar rate, but once women marry, domestic responsibilities can interfere with their educations. None of these sociology graduate students are yet married, but many said they would begin looking for a husband soon after graduation.

Development scholars have widely theorized the role of the Internet for women in the developing world. Generally, these scholars predict that the Internet will drastically improve the social status of women by increasing access to education and economic mobility. Many of these assessments, however, fail to consider that the Internet tends to benefit the already privileged. Most Internet work requires English proficiency and a monetary investment in technology, and few of the truly poor can justify purchasing new technologies when they lack basic infrastructural services such as clean water and reliable electricity. The Internet is therefore unlikely to immediately benefit most women in developing countries. Nevertheless, Internet technology does promise limited benefits to certain groups of women, including highly educated scientists. My research on female scientists in the Indian state of Kerala suggests that women may be using the Internet to circumvent local practices of gender stratification that constrain their social and professional mobility.

Social Restrictions on Female Scientists’ Careers

My research is part of a longitudinal study on the impact of information and communications technologies (ICTs) on scientific communities in four developing areas: Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Kerala. Researchers based at Louisiana State University are conducting this study in collaboration with local sociologists in each of these locations. Initial research in Kerala conducted in 1994 indicates that, in comparison to their Indian male colleagues and African female counterparts, female scientists in Kerala are professionally isolated. Researchers have attributed this finding to social restrictions on the behavior of Indian women that tend to limit their professional contacts, particularly within international networks.

Like women throughout India, women in Kerala encounter a social climate that stresses female sexual purity and family responsibility. This climate constrains physical mobility, and therefore professional mobility, by limiting contact with unrelated men, absence from the home after dark, and travel without a male escort. Unmarried women, regardless of occupation, encounter restrictions on physical mobility in the interest of maintaining sexual purity. Once women marry, family responsibilities become their primary restrictions. These cultural limitations affect women to different degrees depending on their age, marital status, caste, and socioeconomic class, but they are very much a real force in every woman’s life.


This billboard for a mortgage company in Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, reflects the cultural construction of femininity in India.

The majority of the Indian women scientists I interviewed are married with children, and family responsibilities have heavily influenced their careers. Family obligations prevent most from taking on additional responsibilities such as editing a journal or supervising a lab and cause many to decline professional opportunities requiring foreign travel or relocation. Nearly all have at some point reduced their work hours to care for children or sick family members. Although professional women throughout the world face similar dilemmas, Indian women find that domestic responsibility is their primary duty regardless of their level of education, occupation, or income.

Despite the palpable effects these limitations have on women’s careers, the depth of gender stratification is not always apparent, even to social scientists, who typically use conventional development indicators such as female-to-male ratio, female literacy, fertility rate, and female life expectancy to measure women’s status in developing countries. In Kerala these statistics fail to capture the entire picture. Kerala boasts the highest female-to-male ratio, the highest female life expectancy, and the lowest fertility rate in all of India. Moreover, upper caste women in Kerala have traditionally had access to education and property ownership, customs seldom found in other parts of India. Yet despite impressive statistics and seemingly liberal traditions, local feminist scholars remain skeptical that these indicators translate into real advantages, such as decision-making power in the family and community.

Since 1994, the research conducted by my colleagues and me seems to affirm these suspicions in regards to the lives of women in the scientific community. Female scientists in Kerala are less likely than their male colleagues to obtain degrees from foreign universities, develop professional contacts outside their local research systems, publish in international journals, or travel abroad for professional reasons. These disadvantages can devastate the careers of developing-world scientists, who rely on connections to foreign institutions and researchers in developed countries for access to technology, research materials, and funding. 

The Promise of Digital Access

Despite the significant cultural limitations to their careers, the female scientists with whom I spoke do not indicate that they desire change. Although men seldom help with domestic labor, the women I interviewed do not expect them to do so. These women believe that international opportunities are ultimately beyond their reach; they do not indicate that they feel oppressed by their domestic burden. They view cultural limitations as a necessary feature of their society and do not desire Western-style feminist liberation.

How, then, can the Internet help female scientists in Kerala overcome the cultural restrictions that limit their careers? Given that the women in my study seem resistant to cultural change, this question may appear misinformed. Nevertheless, the Internet holds special significance for Indian women working within a system of restricted mobility. These women may seek to improve their professional productivity while still maintaining their culture. While this premise of compromise may be overly optimistic, it does hold some promise--just as the Internet itself holds promise for expanded professional opportunities for women.

My research has indicated that since 1994, little has changed in the measurable situation of female scientists in Kerala. They are still less likely than their male colleagues to earn degrees at foreign universities, develop professional contacts outside their local research system, publish in international journals, or engage in professional travel abroad. What has changed, however, is their awareness of international professional contacts and opportunities. In the pre-Internet era, women did not have exposure to foreign professionals, who seldom travel to developing nations to conduct research, or access to foreign journals, which are often unaffordable to professionals and institutions outside of developed countries. Women now speak with interest of more international research opportunities and of foreign contacts and international journals. The Internet seems to allow women to circumvent the cultural restrictions that limited their physical access to these resources. 

Such findings evidence the beginnings of social change for women in Kerala. Women’s heightened awareness of international opportunities could easily lead to an increased rate of publication in foreign journals and then to more frequent international travel and research. While Internet technology may not be intrinsically or uniformly beneficial, it holds the possibility of improving professional standing for women scientists in Kerala. With appropriate attention to the basic needs and education of more impoverished populations, similar benefits could likely reach women in all social positions. 


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