Reducing the Gender Gap for Women in Aquaculture in India through Targeted Affirmative Action

By Sreeja Lakshmi

I recently received a Postdoctoral Fellowship award from the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network (IVVN), United Kingdom. The aim of this fellowship is to support the career development of female scientists involved in the field of veterinary vaccines.

Women’s power in science is crucial for today’s society. Being a representative of “women in science” from India, I must convey that career development and promotion for Indian women are important issues. Their importance comes mainly from the difficulties women experience in their careers, such as gender disparity, family responsibilities and family-work conflicts. Women scientists from India still represent a minority in their profession. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, as of June 2019, women with research chairs represented less than 30% worldwide and only 14% in India (Times of India, April 2018).

Dr Sreeja Lakshmi: Photo: supplied.

Women scientists are no different from normal Indian working women.  Studies have shown that family responsibilities and a family-work balance results in less time, energy and commitment to invest in their careers, making women less productive than men. In India. traditionally, women are considered as nurturers, who are expected to be subordinate and support the role of their male partner rather thanbeing the main wage earner, or they restrict themselves from entering careers due to their biological clock. Although there are many women holding excellent degrees in science, few of them manage to find suitable employment. Women seldom receive awards/grants open to both sexes, and low numbers of women are appointed as research fellows. The proportion of women in national laboratories and prestigious universities compared to their male counterparts is also a real concern. Loss of women in science tends to come during doctoral and post-doctoral periods. Many women quit science after their post-doctoral studies because getting suitable employment after a break to have a family can be difficult. Such a situation of dropping out of their career when domestic needs overcome career goals prevents them from being financially independent and can negatively impact their self worth.

The barriers to successful re-entry to science or a sustainable move of a women researcher can be accomplished by providing more fellowships and funding programs for women – in other words, targeted affirmative action. This will enhance the presence of women in work related to research, development and innovation. Providing funds to women should also focus on decreasing the gender gap. Fellowships and scholarships on both a national and global level will enhance the opportunities for help to support and sustain the careers of women in science. An international exchange program for women will have the added benefit of giving them experience working in a more technologically advanced environment, as well as helping them expand their research network on an international level. Having earned my PhD at the University of Regensburg, Germany, I have first-hand experience of this and understand the important value such experiences can have towards the development and sustainability of a career in science for women from low- and middle-income countries.

Women scientists in aquaculture are no different to those in other fields of research where more funding is needed to enable the candidates to be innovative and to pursue their research goals. It is difficult for women, particularly those from low- and middle-income countries to persevere in their aquaculture research careers for the reasons mentioned above. Therefore, more national and international funding schemes geared towards sustaining the careers of female aquaculture scientists are required.

Aquaculture livelihoods are diverse and COVID-19 is bringing change

Aquaculture supports many livelihoods in countries like India and women can be found working in all corners of the industry, including fish farmers, fish vendors, processors and traders, thereby highlighting the empowerment of women in fisheries and aquaculture. Indeed, the fisheries sector is also balanced with lower wage disparities among men and women, compared to other sectors. The fisheries and aquaculture sectors are extremely diverse, which rely largely on labour, production, markets, and supply. Lockdown and physical distancing over this COVID-19 pandemic urged the increased adoption of online distributors, which can have positive distribution impacts, but also makes the careers of vendors more precarious. This is especially the case for women who are mainly involved in the domestic supply of fishes and creates the risk of them becoming jobless. On the flip side, there are fish farmers who consider their regional fish farming activities as secure and feel they have not really been affected economically when compared to other industries.

My personal journey

The focus of my fellowship is the development of a nanoparticle Tilapia Lake Virus vaccine for tilapia aquaculture in India, under the mentorship of Drs. Kim Thompson and David Smith at Moredun Research Institute in the UK. My entry into aquaculture research was accidental through receiving a MASTS-PECRE (Marine Alliance Science Technology Scotland-Post doctoral and Early Career Research Exchanges) Award to visit the University of Aberdeen, Scotland in 2019. This opened new opportunities for me within the fisheries sector and helped me understand the importance of effective fish health management to control diseases in aquaculture and contribute positively towards safeguarding a sustainable aquaculture industry. The topic of my current project, supported by the IVVN fellowship, is of global interest and is particularly relevant for India and other low-income countries, where fish health management has been significantly affected due to infectious diseases. The fellowship is allowing me to gain valuable skills and expertise related to fish health management, which will be important for my career in science and overall career aim of helping to make aquaculture a more sustainable industry. Being a female academic researcher, I consider this fellowship as a valuable opportunity that will support my long-term career in the field of aquaculture by allowing me to gain new skills and experience in novel technologies to perform research into fish health. Moreover the project carries a societal commitment through the production of a cost effective and easily administered vaccine, which will be really helpful for the fish farmers who rely on Tilapia farming for their livelihood.

Further Reading

More information about Dr Sreeja Lakshmi’s project can be found at

For an overview of the concepts of substantive equality, see Substantive Equality: A useable framework for assessing human rights, allocation and more in fisheries