Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column dedicated to the experience of Indian immigrants.
As I mark an important milestone in my academic career, I find that not much has changed since I joined the workforce, so my goal of staying with the workforce sounds like an achievement.
I recently completed 25 years as a scientist. Unsurprisingly, I remembered my first day at work to reap the rewards of my hard-earned education, which began in India and culminated in the United States with a PhD. As a hard-working student who grew up in urban India in a family who valued education, I had completed a science degree without being aware of the challenges of being a woman in STEM.
The boys are optimistic and naive. I was no exception. My ambitions were modest. I hoped to make a contribution to the field, slightly improve people’s lives, and gain satisfaction through meaningful work.
When I look back today in retrospect, I can confidently report that I have achieved a single (and anything but high) goal. Despite many obstacles, I stayed with the workforce.
A premonition of things to come
On a beautiful sunny January morning when I signed up for duty at a pharmaceutical company in California, I was asked to sign a form agreeing to disclose my pregnancy “immediately,” a process that was mandatory for all female employees. It was supposed to protect my unborn baby from possible harm as my work involved chemicals of unknown toxicity. While I don’t want to admit that I was already in my first trimester of pregnancy, I gave up.
With this auspicious beginning, I embarked on a career that spanned three countries – USA, India and Singapore. I have worked in multinational companies and research institutes, ran my own consulting business and taught at a university. I have traveled to Switzerland and Malaysia to work alone, and have visited state-of-the-art facilities and hole-in-the-wall operations. I’ve attended meetings with corporate bigwigs and worked with nonprofits.
Although a lot has changed in the world since my career began, certain fundamental aspects of STEM areas, particularly those related to women, have remained the same. The United Nations has declared February 11th International Women in Science Day to raise awareness of the gender imbalance in STEM areas. After this World Economic Forum, Women are still excluded from full participation when it comes to careers in STEM.
Why is it considered that women “do not fully participate”?
I looked back at my own career for answers. More than public role models who graced the cover of a magazine, private interactions in my immediate environment had a greater impact on my young career. In the time before the internet became the main source of information, before influencers channeled public opinion, I sought inspiration from women scientists.
My youngest aunt, the first person in the extended family to complete a science degree, a professor at my university in Baltimore, and colleagues at work were de facto my advisors. They served as soundboards and working examples that also provided valuable practical advice.
“Don’t give up your financial independence.”
“Adjust your job role or work part-time when you’re in trouble, but stay with the workforce.”
“Always look for ways to advance your career, but also ways to reduce your stress.”
“Don’t try to be a super woman.”
While I appreciated her encouraging words, I was aware that this was not standard professional advice for men. In a fair world without gender prejudice and discrimination, I would be on an equal footing with my male colleagues and would have a similarly successful career. In reality, I was constantly in the firefight trying to find alternative ways to manage my career and accommodate life changes, including marriage and motherhood.
To make a difference, you have to run the long race
Almost a decade ago, I was asked to speak to a girls-only science school in Hyderabad on the occasion of the centenary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“I’m not a chemist,” I replied, surprised by the request, feeling uncomfortable and severely underqualified, even though I’d worked in two countries up to that point.
“We want you to inspire the young women,” emphasized the school principal.
What could I say to a new generation of women scientists who are preparing to step into a field where the stakes have certainly not been in their favor?
I spoke of dreams and hard work, opportunities and failures, constant learning and self-confidence. But I also talked about my own experiences. I had experienced miscarriages and migration, divorce and displacement, grief and loss, but at every intersection I had asked myself a question:
What’s the smallest change I need to make to gain a foothold in the workforce?
At one point I had worked fewer hours a week, at another point I had signed up for a course to add new skills to allow for a sideways change. From moving closer to work to save time, paying more for better childcare, and eventually moving from a full-time employee to a freelance consultant, I had repeatedly reinvented my work life to suit my lifestyle changes.
It’s not about the fame
I would like to believe that times have changed, but they really haven’t changed that much.
While enjoying the popular show Big Bang Theory, which featured two main female characters as scientists, I was surprised by a tweet Flavia Tata NardiniThe co-founder of Fleetspace Technologies, who was standing behind a podium with an infant in his arms and a toddler by her side, giving a speech to high school girls, appeared. The former had more viewers, but the latter was a real representation of a woman’s working life.
Indian women scientists join for a brief moment ISRO received recognition for her role in successfully launching a satellite into orbit on Mars. But many more women who have made important scientific contributions continue to be routinely obscured by the familiar faces of their celebrity pop culture counterparts.
Most women falter when faced with seemingly trivial problems – reliable daycare, financial support, flexibility. In recent articles in the work life In the column on the American Association of Science website, researchers and faculty discussed issues with miscarriages and work-life balance, taking time off to care for sick parents, and their inability to travel to conferences outside their parents’ city as a single parent, to present papers with no resources or backup support. Many or all of these issues have a direct impact on their job prospects and careers.
It is therefore not surprising that large numbers of women drop out of STEM careers. It’s shocking that women endure at all.
With that in mind, it seems like a great achievement to have achieved my lonely goal of not dropping out of the race. Maybe I was lucky. From a supportive (male) boss who gave me flexibility when I returned to work after eight weeks of maternity leave, to parents who stepped in during a crisis, from the kind lady watching my child to a close group of friends who have favourited I jumped in on short term to help in various ways. I am committed to an army of silent followers.
To pay it forward along with a colleague, I helped lobby and set up a daycare for employees at my workplace in India. I hired new mothers to work from home in my own company on a flexible schedule. I continued to mentor and guide my students long after they graduated.
Despite our impatience, change is happening at its own pace. Until then, I refuse to despair.
By continuing to look after my weak budget at work and initiatives like that Life of science I plan to continue to advocate the cause of women in STEM.
Ranjani Rao is a trained scientist, professional writer, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of the United States, and now lives with her family in Singapore. She is currently working on a paper. She is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves to be with readers on her website and on Medium | get in touch Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
Photo from Science in HD on Unsplash
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