Two decades ago, after doing exceedingly well academically throughout high school, when I expressed an interest in choosing science as a major in college, my mother was not very supportive. I doubt her reservations stemmed from an agreement with Lawrence Summers of Harvard, who implied that girls do not have the innate ability to do well in such fields. My mother, besides being an educated Indian woman, to this day continues to be a pragmatist first. She could foresee the potholes on the road that I had chosen. For a woman, balancing home and career is hard enough, even when it is not tied to working in the laboratory. While girls in India may receive the same level of science education as the boys, the abysmally small number of women who continue to pursue a career in science bears witness to this fact.
Fortunately for me, fate intervened. I went to college, got married, moved to the United States, and then pursued my dream of getting a Ph.D. I landed a job before motherhood knocked. The baby arrived after I had savored the excitement of working on innovative research in search of better treatments for human illnesses. The challenge of solving complex problems, the thrill of working in laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment, and the honor of being in the presence of eminent scientists who I could respect for their scientific knowledge, their humility and humanity, was a part of my life. But reconciling the demands of parenting in the middle of an alkylation reaction in the chemistry lab and breastfeeding during molecular biology experiments is not simple. For women scientists who walk this tightrope, the role models are few, genuine supporters rare, and wholehearted well-wishers practically non-existent. Moreover, there is a gender disparity not only in salary but also opportunities for advancement; it is a miracle that the few women who stick around actually stay the course.
The ability and drive to succeed in scientific fields is ably demonstrated by those distinguished women who have succeeded spectacularly and won Nobel prizes and other honors. Indian women too have had some measure of success in recent times. Of recent relevance is the story of Kiran Majumdar-Shaw, who became India’s richest woman last year when the IPO of her biotech company became a runaway success. While the romance of making it big strikes a chord with some, for most of us trying to just get through each day, it is not the lure of phenomenal success that carries us forward. What helps are words of encouragement, a non-discriminating environment, and support from colleagues and superiors that is not condescending.
During the years that I worked in the United States, sometimes I had the dubious distinction of being the only immigrant woman in a meeting. Today, in my workplace in India, I am no longer part of a racial minority but still continue to be the only woman in the room at many meetings. At such times I am acutely aware of the additional burden I carry. By my presence and influence in that room, I am setting an example for those other women who start off on par with men when it comes to receiving an education but are left behind when it comes to being empowered to follow through. I am but one symbol of what is indeed possible, but not easy.
On days with too many unfinished chores and unfulfilled commitments, I wonder why I continue this juggling act. But then an occasion like “Bring Your Child to Work Day” comes along and it reminds me once more why I should continue with my work. It would indeed be worthwhile if I could influence one woman to tread the scientific path, even if that is my own daughter. Who knows, she may even win a Nobel?
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.