The headquarters of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) looks deserted as most government buildings are wont do on a Saturday.

The Director General of ICMR, Soumya Swaminathan, is one of the few people working, along with a few security guards and a couple of her staff members.

“In leadership positions, we see fewer women. In general, it becomes more and more demanding and competitive and we see more women preferring to take a back seat instead of aggressively competing for the top job. Very often, women feel they would be compromising on their other commitments because a leadership position does mean you have to give more time to the job,” she says.

Swaminathan is only the second woman Director General of the medical research organisation in over 100 years of its history, which can be traced back to 1911 when it was called the Indian Research Fund Association.

A paediatrician by qualification, 57-year-old Swaminathan believes that a woman in the top job brings a little something extra to the organisation.

“I think a woman does tend to see things from a slightly different point-of-view. I think it is a social thing. We are trained to be a little more sensitive about various people and their needs,” she says.

Female leadership: an asset

Swaminathan has taken a conscious decision to prioritise macro needs over the micro. For example, nutrition, especially of children and adolescents, is on the top of her priorities.

She has started galvanising a new survey on nutrition to gather more comprehensive data.

This appears to be an example of what she describes as an asset of female leadership – the desire to approach a subject with a broader perspective. Known for her life-long work on HIV and tuberculosis, Swaminathan is concerned about the skewed way in which gender equality is being perceived, especially because of the health and social implications of the same.

“I remember in the late 1990s, when I started working on HIV, there were so many women who were thrown out their house once their husbands contracted AIDS and died,” she says.

While attitudes towards HIV has taken a turn for the better, the issue of discrimination continues to exist and has repercussions for the health of the society, she says.

“I think our biggest problem is that we are not socialising our girls and boys, especially the boys I think. So, when they grow up they don’t have that appreciation, understanding and respect. We need much more open discussions.

“We tend to focus on girls empowerment and women’s rights. But we forget the boys who need a lot of attention at that stage and age.

“If no one is ever going to discuss any of these things with them, they are going to grow up with peculiar ideas,” she says.