Amid Covid-19 women in science juggle with chores, childcare, research


The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown amplified challenges faced by women. On International Women’s Day, HT speaks to women pursuing careers in science and are simultaneously juggling childcare, household responsibilities and research. While some have managed to overcome challenges, others have either put their careers on hold or given it up completely.

‘It has been a learning curve’

In February last year, just ahead of the first lockdown, Rohini Karandikar, 36, had completed her postdoctoral studies from the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). She was looking forward to joining as a curriculum and innovations manager at a city-based startup.

However, with lockdown in place, navigating her new job from home, while engaging her five-year-old son was an exhausting task. “The first few weeks were filled with anxiety as I had to call-off meetings because my child needed me. The daycares were shut, hence the job of engaging him in activities had fallen on my shoulders,” said Karandikar, who was also engaged in other voluntary research projects. Her husband, a research scientist at a pharma company, is an essential worker and could contribute in shifts.

“I made frantic calls to my friends to ask them how I could keep my son busy while I am working. Fortunately, my employers were understanding and supportive,” Karandikar said. She worked out a system of scheduling meetings when her husband was home. Along the way, she has found creative ways to keep the five-year-old occupied. “One of the things that worked well was asking my relatives to join in on a video call with my son. It was exhausting to look for those 15-minute gaps when I could concentrate on my work,” she said. Karandikar says it has been a learning curve but she’s resorted to scheduling meetings at 11.30pm after her son has slept off.

Going from full-time PhD to part-time

The plan to complete her PhD in 3.5 years seems near impossible now to Sneha Swami, 28, a research scholar from the Centre for Policy Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B). In the third year of her PhD, Swami had to start her field-work all over again in June last year.

“My primary research work is in the area of the electricity distribution system. This means a lot of fieldwork and during the pandemic, it had to take a back seat,” said Swami. While she was pursuing her fieldwork in Pune, in June last year, following her marriage, Swami moved to Nashik. “I had to start over and make new contacts in the electricity offices in Nashik and get the relevant permissions,” said Swami.

While earlier, living on campus in the institute, Swami spent around six-seven hours a day on her research work, now, on her own, she can barely work three-four hours a day.

“Sitting at home, with no access to libraries, working a few hours has led to a lot of anxiety. I have always been inclined towards fieldwork, but since I was helpless, it started affecting my mental health,” said Swami. Marriage, too, has brought in responsibilities that keep her away from work at times.

“From a full-time PhD student, now I have become a part-time one. I miss being in a lab and discussing problems with other researchers. Our team meetings are also few now. Fortunately, I have found a library here to keep myself busy,” said Swami.

Working odd hours to fulfil research demands

Archana Iyer, 34, is a researcher at the department of biological sciences at TIFR and also a mom to a two-year-old daughter. At the onset of the pandemic, with the sudden closure of the daycare, non-availability of maids, Iyer and her husband found themselves in a fix.

“I was involved in a research story that was close to publication but needed key experiments to be fulfilled within a limited time. My husband on the other hand is the owner of a company and had to work from home. The fear of Covid-19 brought uncertainty and tribulations and it was important to adapt to these overwhelming changes,” she said. The duo took turns to take care of their child, stand in grocery queues, clean the house, cook food, all the while engaging their daughter.

“Since I lived on the institute campus, I managed my experimental demands by working at odd hours. We realised that the pandemic related trials would last long and we had to make the best of it. The biggest comfort was in the realisation that we could now spend much more time with our child,” said Iyer.

She and her husband have now reorganised their daily chores such that they can contribute to their respective professional lives and yet manage their personal tasks. “This new routine became the new normal. It was certainly difficult but finding little positives all along we were able to cope,” said Iyer.

Key takeaways:

Domestic duties: “Doing all the household chores by myself stole a lot of time. It made me realise the contribution of household helpers and the role they play in our lives,” said Rohini Godbole, Centre for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Found time for family: “The pandemic has been brutal and exhausting, as well as rewarding. Having teenage boys at home meant producing mass quantities of food. I’ve attended webinars and meetings while stirring a pan of veggies. However, this was the first time in ages that we, as a family, could share a meal during the day,” said Shubha Tole, neuroscientist, TIFR.

Missing the lab: “One of the key aspects of research is getting together with other researchers and faculty members to discuss a problem. There’s so much scope to learn from these face-to-face experiences. While we all work online, the importance of discussing a problem and looking for solutions as a group is immeasurable,” said Amruta Muthal, a machine-learning researcher from IIIT Hyderabad.


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