[Women in Science] Urmi Nanda Biswas explores social psychology, gender constructs  

By Aashima Dogra|24th Jan 2018
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From discussing female foeticide to how a woman has to work four times as hard, this professor explains society and gender.


At one of India’s oldest universities, Urmi Nanda Biswas’ vast office is mostly occupied by an oval table where she sits, advising her many research associates as they pop in and out looking for guidance. As I pause and restart my recorder to make way for the interruptions so she can carry on her duties, I realise how this room is such a perfect fit for someone like Urmi.

She has earned her position as Professor and Head of Department of Psychology, at MS University, Baroda, by “working four times as hard as any man would need to,” said the applied social psychologist, with 29 years of research experience.

Urmi set forth on her work when she was 21 years with a PhD from Allahabad University on a critical topic. “I was trying to see why some people perpetuate in poverty, and some people move up, what are the psychosocial factors that make people strive for better socio-economic mobility?”

Poverty in India takes its roots from the legacy left behind by the historic caste system. ‘Higher’ tasks that are also lucrative are reserved for higher castes. The lower classes thus remain in poverty, attempting to catch up. This caste-based system of social economics, despite several quotas in education and public sector employment, trickles down to the gross inequality we see in the country even today.

For her doctoral research, Urmi used questionnaires, interviews and participant observation in tribal villages in Orissa to study the psychology of individuals who are socioeconomically mobile – those who move up in life, and also of those who are struck below the poverty line. The participants came from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and general class.

“I found that self-efficacy – one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed, plays a big role. So does planning behaviour.” Another finding Urmi considers “striking” was the prevalence of tokenism in higher positions in society. “People who got to the higher positions through a quota or reserved seats, for example under secretaries in the government secretariat, exhibit tokenism. They have been given a position of responsibility but the attitude of apathy to social change persists.”

“I also used the premise of relative deprivation and perception. People who do not perceive that they are poor would not strive to become socially and economically mobile. When people perceive themselves as poor, they will strive hard.”

With this work as her base, Urmi went on to venture into gender stereotyping, public health and psychology in adolescents as well as HR and organisational psychology.

Female foeticide for population control

Most recently, she finished a comparative study on motivations behind female foeticide in two Indian states – Orissa and Gujarat.

“Orissa is supposed to be a very poor state. But ten districts in the state have high sex ratio – the number of girls is higher than boys. Whereas Gujarat, a prosperous state, is one of the four states in India with the lowest sex ratios. The town of Mehsana, in Gujarat, had the lowest sex ratio in the country – 760 girls for 1000 boys - when we started the project.”

Urmi chose two towns in both states, one with a relatively high sex ratio and another with the lowest. She and her team then interviewed and carried out focus group discussions with gynaecologists, paramedics, pregnant mothers, their families and NGOs who are working with this issue to examine how people in these two states perceive female foeticide.

“We found that in Orissa, it is more of a tradition that they want to have boys. In Gujarat, they have a lot of respect for girls, they say we will educate them, attitude-wise everything is fine but at the end of the day, they would like to have a boy. They do not have any reason – the attitude is very positive towards girls – but still, a boy should be there.”

Urmi remembers one particular interview distinctly. “One of the gynaecologists we interviewed said: ‘They will go on reproducing until they have a baby boy. If you want to control the population, sex-selective abortion (aborting the girls until a boy is conceived) can be used, so the population will be controlled,” she said to my gaping face.

Urmi’s research is filled with such social realities, birthing in individual psychology and stemming from cultural conditioning that often snowballs into social evils.

Most gynaecologists she interviewed agreed that female foeticide was taking place, but denied their own involvement. “They said other gynaecologists were doing it in sly. In Gujarat, it is very strict; because of the Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT) Act; there are many raids at gynaecology clinics and there is a lengthy formal registration procedure and checks to keep a sonography machine. But in spite of that, female foeticide goes on.”

The comparison between the two states led Urmi to the insightful finding of non-cooperation between NGOs and Government-led social initiatives in Gujarat.

“In Orissa, it is very heartening to see that NGOs have accepted the responsibility of bringing change; there is a very active collaboration between the government and the NGOs. Most of the time, the NGOs working on these issues are invited to be a part of state level committee meetings. They go and evaluate the clinics.”

In Gujarat, however, Urmi noticed that NGOs and the government fail to collaborate effectively. “They don’t join hands to do the job. There is an attitude that if it is the government agenda then the government should handle it themselves.”

This is a sad state of affairs for the state she now calls home, as the professor of social psychology believes that “when the community participates it becomes easier to bring social change.”

Culture plays a major role

After all these years exploring different aspects of social psychology in India, Urmi has been gradually realising that culture has a major role in determining expectations people have of themselves and from other individuals in society. Especially in India, with all its complexities brought on by the diversity of cultures in one place, it is impossible to put a finger on the psychology of Indian society, per se. It can only be looked at through the lenses of a specific issue and the corresponding culture surrounding it. But one thing is clear to Urmi – our culture is directly influencing how we are thinking.

She explains with the example of her of work on understanding gender equality in collaboration with Swedish and Indian colleagues as part of the collective SIGN – Sweden India Gender Network: “First, we started with gender equality as a value but then we quickly came to the conclusion that people understand gender equality differently in different countries and in different cultures.”

“In India, we talk about equal opportunity. We have a law from the Factory Act that says there should be equal opportunity for men and women. People consider this gender equality…” So, what’s behind the continuing inequality in India despite the constitution clearly dictating a premise for equality?

“It is a culturally construed and culturally respected notion that women should be looking after the family and should not be working after evening. The intention is not to deprive the woman of jobs, nor is it based on a thinking that she is incapable of doing these jobs, but society thinks that she should be protected, taken care of.”

In other cultures, Urmi pointed out, the whole connotation is very different. “For example, in India, we have equal pay (except for actors and sportspersons). Equal pay for equal positions in many of the countries considered advanced is still a struggle.”

“When people from foreign cultures look at India’s gender inequality, they might see it in the same context of gender sensitisation as theirs. But everything has to be seen in its own context – the socio-historical-political evolution of the country and the cultures in it need to be acknowledged.”

“To understand a concept in its totality you have to account for socially relevant constructs,” she concluded.

Academic leanings

To support her research, Urmi has been resourceful in seeking and earning grants from the likes of Population Council, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Forte – Swedish Research Council for Health and the likes, and had authored many books that are used as textbooks in psychology studies around the world, and won several awards for her over fifty research papers.

“I am planning to bring out another book on gender. Springer (publisher) is after my life for a draft but I have to send to press another book that I have written about organisational values and attractive workplaces with my Swedish collaborators,” she said smiling.

“I was on a sabbatical from the university for eight months so the university wants something very concrete, so I thought of the book first and then the papers will follow.”

Even as a young girl, Urmi knew she wanted to get into academics, like most of her family. “My father and all his brothers were working in higher education institutions in the country. I was very motivated to be in academics because of them. One of my uncles, Dhirendra Narayan Nanda, was a great scientist, he has worked in most of the IITs, he worked in Germany for a long time.”

In a supportive academic Oriya family, Urmi’s way into academia “was a very straight choice”.

“In my last year of MSc at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, I got the UGC-JRF position. I did my PhD, a post-doc from SP University in nearby Vidyanagar and joined MSU Baroda’s Psychology department as a teacher in 1996. In 2011, I became the head.”

As she spoke, one of her students entered the room and walked toward Urmi sobbing due to certain misgivings in the department. Her professor hugged her and handled the situation like the calm psychologist she is, offering the bigger perspective, but also like a mother.

She went on to tell me about her husband, Saswata Narayan Biswas, a professor at Institute of Rural Management, Anand, who she has often collaborated in writing books and research. They have two sons, who, she says they have raised to be “emotionally and physically self-sufficient.”

Positive about change

Getting here hasn’t been easy, affirms Urmi. There have been mistakes that have set her back. “As a woman, you have to work four times as hard as any man would need to get the same recognition. For people to really admit that you are capable, you have to prove yourself again and again.”

“Because of the gender stereotypes in our society, if a man misses something, the society will turn a blind eye to the mistakes, but it is not the same for a woman. If a woman is in the same position, you are always under scrutiny so you cannot afford to go wrong anywhere.”

“I could have joined the institute my husband works at. But consciously, I chose not to because when a husband and wife work together in the same institute, many of your accomplishments will be undermined based on the thinking that you are getting promoted because of your husband.” Most of her research work, like this one, reflects her personal choices.

Urmi is positive and believes that things are changing. “As a society, we are becoming more and more individualistic so you don’t have to be dependent on anybody, emotionally, physically and financially.”

“I’m learning a lot from my PhD students. They are much bolder than I ever was. They can voice their opinions, they have the courage to walk out if they feel that their dignity is violated. So that is a very welcoming change that is coming in the society.”

According to her, the ‘role expectation’ from girls and women are now changing, and the capabilities and potential of a woman are being redefined. The attitude of women towards themselves and other women gets the credit for this positive change.

“Now the girls would not take anything lying down. This will bring the social change… this IS bringing the social change, in fact,” she said.

This change is happening fast, she believes. “One decade is good enough time,” for things to turn around.

“We have to get used to the fact that women are working, they are part of the workforce. We are figuring out how we can facilitate this and find solutions to the constraints that society now faces with regards to child rearing and family management.”