Both science and gender equality are critical for achieving internationally accepted development goals, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the last few decades, the international community has worked hard to inspire and engage women and girls in science. Despite this, women and girls are still barred from fully participating in science.
In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly established 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in order to ensure complete and equal access to and engagement in science for women and girls, as well as to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let us look at the journey of Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist of World Health Organisation, who fought against all odds and carved out a place for herself in the field entrenched with patriarchy.
In March 2019, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan was named the first Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO). She has 30 years of experience in clinical care and research, and has worked to transform knowledge into relevant programmes throughout her career. She is an Indian paediatrician and a globally recognised researcher on tuberculosis and HIV. From 2015 to 2017, Dr. Swaminathan served as the Secretary to the Government of India for Health Research and the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research. She spent her time in that post focusing on integrating science and evidence into health policymaking, strengthening research capacity in Indian medical schools, and creating south-south health science alliances. She was also the Coordinator of the UNICEF/UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Tropical Diseases Research and Training in Geneva from 2009 to 2011.
Knowing Dr Soumya Swaminathan
Swaminathan was born in Chennai on May 2, 1959. She is the daughter of M. S. Swaminathan, India’s “Father of the Green Revolution,” and Indian educationalist Mina Swaminathan. Madhura Swaminathan, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore, and Nithya Swaminathan, a Senior Lecturer in Gender Analysis in International Development at the University of East Anglia, are Swaminathan’s two siblings.
Swaminathan graduated from the Armed Forces Medical College in Pune with an M.B.B.S. She graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi with an M.D. in paediatrics. She is a National Board Diplomate from the National Board of Examinations. Swaminathan conducted a post-doctoral medical fellowship in neonatology and paediatric pulmonology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles from 1987 to 1989 as part of her education.
Swaminathan’s Career Milestones
Swaminathan has over 350 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters to her credit, having obtained her academic training in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. She is a Foreign Fellow of the National Academy of Medicine in the United States, as well as a Fellow of India’s three science academies. The Science division’s mission is to keep WHO ahead of the curve by leveraging breakthroughs in science and technology for public health and clinical care, as well as to guarantee that WHO’s norms, standards, and guidelines are scientifically sound, timely, and relevant. Her ambition is for WHO to be at the forefront of science, able to transfer new information into real-world influence on global population health.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan’s Experience on Being a Woman in Science
Swaminathan has stated while speaking at the fourth Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020, that she “experienced the culture of a male-dominated committee room” when she started her career at a government research institute and felt “talked down to or made fun of nearly.”
Dr. Swaminathan has claimed she was “not taken seriously” and that her ideas were frequently dismissed. “I believe that is how many of our institutions operate.” They’re really patriarchal,” she stated at the online conference, which serves as a rallying point for gender justice in healthcare. “Then you become hesitant to voice your viewpoint the following time.”
Swaminathan also stated that women researchers had a harder time getting funds authorised and that women in underdeveloped nations had difficulty getting their findings published in journals due to perceived prejudices. “I’ve had to deal with those types of problems and biases,” Dr Swaminathan said, adding that women still have a harder time defending their grant submissions than men since they are viewed differently.
Swaminathan stated that as director-general of the ICMR, she used an inter-disciplinary approach, including the opinions of nurses, doctors, and social workers, and ensuring that her team was aware of LGBTQI community problems.
Swaminathan was the first Indian and first Indian woman to hold the position of deputy director-general of the World Health Organization.
The COVID-19 pandemic has once again highlighted the absence of female participation in decision-making bodies at both the national and global levels. According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, “women make up 70% of the global health workforce, but only 25% of top decision-making posts.” The report also revealed that only two women, or 14.3 per cent, were members of India’s COVID-19 Task Force.