From PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi to the late Columbia astronaut Kalpana Chawla, Indian women are making their mark in the professions in the U.S. However, whether U.S. citizens yet or not, they face the same sense of dislocation that most immigrants face. Becoming acculturated to American society, fitting in, feeling comfortable in what is basically an alien land is part of a long process.
Being women, they also have to juggle family and home while putting in 40 hours a week—or more—in their chosen field. They often face sexism on the job as well as at home.
Being Indian makes their lives unique. No matter what area they are from, no matter what their religion, their socio-economic background or their upbringing, they carry the expectations of their family and their particular segment of Indian culture within them. Most have much closer ties to their families than the typical American, but those ties also bind them. And even the ties themselves begin to change when faced with the expectations of independence acquired in the “land of the free.”
Despite all these obstacles, Indian women are taking their place in American society. These are some of their stories.
Herlin Dyal is one of the few Indian women prosthodontic dentists in the nation. Generally, restorative dentists make up about 1 percent of the dental profession. Recently hired by the Prosthodontic Dental Group in Sacramento, CA, Dyal faced the same dislocation that anyone coming from a foreign country faces. “You have to start over almost,” says Dyal. “You knew how to do everything in India, but here, it is so different.”
For Dyal, that meant returning to school to get locally recognized degrees. “You also need to go back to school to take more tests to get U.S. credentials,” says the woman who had already completed five years of dental school in India.
Worse, the scholarships and loans are impossible to get. “You can’t get loans without a green card or citizenship,” says Dyal. “You have to rely on extended family to sign for collateral and loans.”
It also meant not only learning her way around a series of new cities, but also learning how to drive on the other side of the road.
And, even seemingly inconsequential manners such as learning the shorthand for customizing orders in restaurants.
Although it was disconcerting at first, Dyal adjusted quickly. “Once you get used to it, it is a good thing!” she says with a laugh.
Deepka Lalwani, the first Indian to run for a city council seat in the San Francisco Bay Area, thinks that, thanks to American television, now it’s easier to adjust to American ways than it used to be. “It used to take a month just to learn the proper colloquialisms,” says the founder of Indian Business and Professional Women in the Silicon Valley area of California, a networking group for South Asian professional women that also helps newly arrived immigrants to adjust to American society. “Now, maybe they need a week’s training.”
Nonetheless, the friendliness of Americans takes some getting used to. “The way people present themselves is very friendly. Strangers smile and talk to you,” says the financial consultant who was also the first Indian president of the Milpitas (CA) Chamber of Commerce. “It was a little surprising as I didn’t know this person.” Lalwani thinks, in America, a superficial friendliness greases the wheels of society and “makes everyone feel at home.”
On a deeper, perhaps more important level, there are distances between people, especially in families, that would be unimaginable in India. “People have distances within their families that are shocking,” says Lalwani. “I had a colleague call her sister ‘company.’ Why would you call your sister ‘company?’”
Although Lalwani, who has lived in Milpitas for the past 12 years, says she has not faced what she would call “discrimination,” she has faced “ignorance” about Indian customs and religions, politics, and geography.
That ignorance can be a subtle form of discrimination, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president/chief diversity officer at Sodexho in Gaithersburg, MD. “Most of us spend our energy trying to fit in, which means doing it at the expense of the part of us which is Indian,” says Anand, who is one of the highest-ranking Indian women in corporate America. To Anand, an author of four texts on culture and diversity in the workplace, being Indian means being able to express yourself through dress, food, and culture. “It depends on how vocal people are in expressing their culture.”
How comfortable people feel about doing so often depends on the culture of the company itself. At Sodexho, the leading provider of food and facilities management in the U.S. and Canada, Anand says their environment is “very inclusive. We celebrate differences.”
Fitting in is only part of the battle. While Indians may be considered a “model minority”—hard-working, intelligent, technically competent—Indians often enter companies at a lower level and are not promoted as fast as their American counterparts. In addition to racism, they are also held back by the belief that they are not as good at communication and management.
In fact, women are not as vocal about selling themselves—or their qualifications. “The value systems bump up against each other,” says Anand, who came to the U.S. in 1976. “Perhaps, culturally, the style is not to make waves. In mainstream U.S., it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”
The model minority status certainly rang true for Preneet Cheema, a pediatrician who did her residency at Columbia University in New York. Despite the usual Midwestern reserve, people have been extremely friendly in the small town of East Liverpool, Ohio, where she now works.
“The only Indians they see are doctors,” says Cheema, who was able to get a green card by working in a medically underserved area of the country. “They know you have worked hard to get where you are, and are probably smart. They have a lot of respect for you.”
While Cheema enjoys her work immensely, the fact that she is separated from her husband because of their careers makes her life difficult. “I feel I am a single mom most of the week,” says Cheema. “I am raising a toddler on my own.” Since Cheema will have finished her visa requirements in another year, she hopes to join her husband then.
For her, the lack of extended family—and lack of cheap domestic help—is definitely a burden. Almost without exception, all the women interviewed mentioned the difficulty of working hard at a career without domestic help or an extended family. In India, even people of lower economic status can usually afford a maid. In the U.S., on the other hand, because domestic labor is relatively expensive, even most professional women work two jobs—being a homemaker or mother and being a career woman.
“You want to make a solid life here,” says Cheema. “It’s possible if both the wife and husband pursue professional careers. But I don’t think Indian men understand what it is to marry a professional woman.”
Cheema, who sees poor women day-in and day-out, understands the difficulty women face working full time and then go home to cook and “slave.” The contrast is especially glaring when she compares the two countries. “At home, we have a cook, a gardener, a driver,” says Cheema, who has been here for slightly more than six years. “We have five people taking care of Mom and Dad. They’re used to being pampered.”
Although Cheema did have live-in help until recently, she now has someone who comes in only for a certain number of hours a week to help so she can “spend quality time with my son. I want to give him a lot of attention.”
In fact, the stresses of American life can be difficult for South Asian women. Even though statistics on South Asian women in the U.S. are harder to come by, most women worldwide suffer from domestic abuse and violence, whether they are immigrants or not. Shamita Dasgupta and her friends started out running the consciousness-raising group in 1985 that became Manavi, a New Jersey non-profit that works to increase awareness of women’s rights and end all violence against women.
They soon found the needs of battered women taking precedence. Despite being considered a “model minority,” they found that South Asian women had problems that often were swept under the carpet.
Even today, Dasgupta feels that lack of support from the extended family is one of the largest issues Indian women in this country face. “Most of them are here with their husband and children alone, which becomes a problem,” says Dasgupta, who currently is an adjunct professor at New York University Law School. “There is pressure to keep it in a nuclear family. They cannot get help from extended family members or from the larger community.”
In addition, newly arrived women rarely know their rights. With language barriers, trying to find help is difficult. “They are totally isolated and don’t know where to turn,” says Dasgupta. “They don’t have anywhere to turn that’s going to be culturally sensitive. Most organizations aren’t even linguistically sensitive, so women don’t feel comfortable going to mainstream organizations.”
Cultural issues, such as the unacceptability of divorce add to the isolation. Although it may not be an actual problem, immigration status may add to the fear of contacting any authority figure.
A recent study in the journal of the American Medical Women’s Association found that 40 percent of married South Asian women living in greater Boston reported physical or sexual violence from current male partners. The study confirmed that women had little knowledge of services available and, like most victims of domestic violence, often blamed themselves for the problem.
Vinay Sood, a loan officer at Moneywise
Mortgage in Norwalk, CA, says she
couldn’t have come as far as she has without her husband’s help—and Sood tried a number of different careers before finding her niche. Starting with a master’s in economics, she got an accountant’s license, a real estate license, and a cosmetologist’s license before settling into loan processing.
“Every time I wanted to do something, to go to school in the evening when my children were small, my husband took care of the kids,” says Sood. “He encouraged me. He gave up golf for 15 years just to help me.”
At one point, when Sood had to be gone for a month-and-a-half, her husband’s mother came from India to help out.
That “pitching in” allowed Sood to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in this country. “There is opportunity like crazy here,” says Sood, who has been in the U.S. nearly 30 years. “You can do anything.”
Dentist Dyal agrees that the U.S. system allows advancement. “You can achieve whatever you want because there is an organized system in place for everything that works. In India, there are more layers of government to go through.”
For some women, corporate opportunity can have other perks. Sumandeep Singh, a system designer with Ford Motor Company in Detroit, has a good job and good daycare. “Ford has a very good one,” says Singh. “They have top-of-the-class daycare providers, who make sure the kids are getting enough stimulation.
“They also have a nurse who gives medicine. They make warm food for the children.” As a result, her older son is very social and very confident. “I think daycare and good childcare plays a big role in it.”
That lack of worry about her children also frees Singh to concentrate on her career, designing software for the financial system of a global automotive corporation. She also believes that Ford’s corporate culture may be more aware of the need to balance family and work life than she might find elsewhere in the U.S. or India.
“It is very hectic here, but I think the quality of life is better. In India, you are expected to give up family, time, everything, to devote to the company,” says Singh, who has been here since 1996. “Here, they respect that you have other priorities and they reward you properly for hard work.”
She also notes that there is very little politics at Ford. “In India, you need to do a lot of things to rise up. Here, I just do my work.”
Shilpa Sood, Manager of Information Architecture at The Walt Disney Company and Vinay Sood’s daughter, does see politics in her job. Being a second-generation American, however, her expectations of American life may be higher than women who have immigrated.
A woman in a field dominated by men, Sood has to give advice on information flow to individuals who not only are older, but have been in the field longer. When Sood deals with the technical side of the corporation, it is “80 percent male. Women are definitely a minority,” says Sood. “That has been challenging—especially since I am a designer telling a technical person how to build a technical thing.”
When Sood deals with other parts of the company, being in a minority becomes the issue.
Sood admits that growing up in Los Angeles, she didn’t experience a lot of discrimination. Now, however, she faces the triple whammy of being young, female, and a minority. “It’s hard to advance,” says Sood. “There seems to be a corporate glass ceiling. Even growing up in this country, I feel that’s true.”
Sood also realizes, however, that part of her limitations are internal. “I reach a point where I feel I should give in and not take it too far. I’ve done a great job and advanced very early, and I should be thankful for what I have,” says Sood, who nonetheless doesn’t feel she has the same flexibility.
Despite her career success, the unmarried woman already feels the push to marry and have children. “There is pressure to uphold cultural and familial goals, including career goals,” says Sood. “I ride the line a lot between driving for independence and being tied to family responsibilities.”
For Sood, one of the most difficult aspects of being a professional woman is the lack of role models. Despite women like Indra Nooyi and Kalpana Chawla, she still finds it difficult to point to successful women who have found a way to balance the cultural demands that exist in her life.
Which is why Anand suggests networking with other South Asian women. “Sharing the challenges we encounter collectively gives us strength,” says Anand. “The key is to develop your own support networks.”
Although Indian women are quietly making a name for themselves in their respective fields, role models are still lacking. Nonetheless, Indian women are making great strides, despite the glass ceilings and other barriers. In the process, they are paving the way for future generations of professional women across the nation.
Dell Richards is a journalist and public relations consultant in Sacramento, CA. She can be reached at [email protected]