Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
As I mark an important milestone in my scientific career, I notice that not much has changed since the time I joined the workforce making my goal of staying in the workforce sound like an achievement.
Recently I completed twenty-five years as a scientist. Not surprisingly, I remembered my first day at work, eager to reap the rewards of my hard earned education that had begun in India and culminated in the US with a Ph.D. As a diligent student growing up in urban India in a family that valued education, I had pursued a science education, unaware of the challenges of being a woman in STEM.
The young are optimistic and naive. I was no exception. My ambitions were modest. I hoped to contribute to the field, make a small difference to people’s lives, and derive satisfaction by doing meaningful work.
Today as I look back through the lens of hindsight, I can confidently report that I have achieved one solitary (and far from lofty) goal. Despite many obstacles, I have continued to remain in the workforce.
A foreshadowing of things to come
On a beautiful sunny January morning when I reported for duty at a pharmaceutical company in California, I had to sign a form agreeing to ‘promptly’ disclose pregnancy, a procedure that was mandatory for all female employees. It was supposedly to protect my unborn baby from potential harm, since my work involved chemicals of unknown toxicity. Although loathe to admit that I was already in my first trimester of pregnancy, I acquiesced.
With that auspicious beginning I embarked on a career which has spanned three countries – USA, India and Singapore. I have been employed at multinational companies and research institutes, run my own consulting business and taught at a university. I have travelled alone for work to Switzerland and Malaysia, and visited state-of-the-art facilities and hole-in-the-wall operations. I have attended meetings with corporate bigwigs and worked with non-profit organizations.
Although much about the world has changed since I began my career, certain fundamental aspects about STEM fields, particularly as it relates to women, have stayed the same. The UN has declared 11 February as the International Day of Women in Science as a way to draw attention to the gender imbalance in STEM fields. However, as per the World Economic Forum, women are still excluded from participating fully when it comes to careers in STEM.
Why are women deemed to “not fully participate”?
I looked back at my own career for answers. More than public role models who graced magazine cover, private interactions within my immediate circle made a greater impact on my fledgling career. In the era before the internet became the main source of information, before influencers channeled public opinion, I sought inspiration from fellow women scientists.
My youngest aunt, the first person in the extended family to pursue a science education, a female professor at my university in Baltimore, and women colleagues at my workplace were my de facto advisors. They served as sounding boards and working examples who also provided valuable practical advice.
“Don’t give up your financial independence.”
”Adjust your job role or work part-time if you’re in a bind, but stay in the workforce.”
“Always lookout for opportunities for advancing in your career but also for ways to reduce your stress.”
“Don’t try to be a superwoman.”
While I appreciated their encouraging words, aware that this was not standard career advice offered to men. In a fair world without gender bias and discrimination, I would be paid on par with my male colleagues, and have a similar successful career trajectory. In reality, I was constantly firefighting to find alternate ways to manage my career and accommodate life changes including marriage and motherhood.
To make a difference, you need to run the long race
Almost a decade ago, I was asked to speak to a girls-only science college in Hyderabad on the occasion of the centennial celebration of Marie Curie’s Chemistry Nobel Prize win.
“I am not a chemist,” I demurred, surprised at the request, feeling awkward and grossly under qualified, although by then I had worked in two countries.
“We would like you to inspire the young women,” the principal insisted.
What could I say to a new generation of women scientists preparing to enter a field where the stakes were certainly not in their favor?
I spoke of dreams and hard work, of opportunities and failures, of constant learning and self-belief. But I also spoke of my own experiences. I had experienced miscarriages and migration, divorce and displacement, bereavement and loss, but at every crossroad, I had asked myself one question –
What is the smallest change I need to make to keep my foot in the workforce?
At one point I had moved to working fewer hours per week, at another, I had signed up for a course to add new skills to facilitate a lateral change. From moving closer to my workplace to save time, to paying more for better quality childcare and finally, going from a full-time employee to a freelance consultant, I had reinvented my work life repeatedly to suit my changing lifestyle.
It is not about the fame
While I would like to think that times have changed, they really haven’t changed that much.
While I enjoyed watching the popular show Big Bang Theory in which two major female characters were shown to be scientists, I was surprised by a tweet depicting Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder of Fleetspace Technologies, standing behind a podium with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side, delivering a speech to high school girls, made an appearance. The former had more viewers but the latter was a true representation of a woman’s work life.
For a brief moment Indian women scientists at ISRO received recognition for their role in successfully sending a satellite to orbit Mars. But many more women who have made major scientific contributions continue to be routinely eclipsed by the familiar visages of their pop culture celebrity counterparts.
Most women falter in the face of what may seem like trivial issues – reliable daycare, financial support, flexibility. In recent essays in the Working Life column of the American Association of Science website, women researchers and faculty spoke about struggles with miscarriages and work-life balance, about taking time off to care for sick parents, and about their inability, as a single parent, to travel to conferences outside their city to present papers without resources or backup support. Many, or all of these issues have a direct impact on their professional prospects and career trajectory.
It is not surprising therefore to find women dropping out in large numbers from STEM careers. It is shocking that women endure at all.
Against this backdrop, having achieved my solitary goal of not dropping out of the race seems like a great achievement. Perhaps I was lucky. From a supportive (male) boss who offered me flexibility when I returned to work after eight weeks of maternity leave to parents who stepped in whenever I had a crisis, from the kind lady who watched my infant to a close-knit group of friends who jumped in at short notice to assist in various ways, I am indebted to an army of silent supporters.
In a bid to pay it forward, along with a colleague, I helped lobby for and set up a daycare center for employees at my workplace in India. I went on to hire young mothers on a flexible, work from home schedule in my own business. I continued to mentor and remain available to my students for guidance long after they graduated.
Change happens at its own pace, despite our impatience. Until then, I refuse to despair.
By continuing to maintain my tenuous toehold in the workplace, supporting initiatives like the Life Of Science project and writing about my experiences, I plan to continue championing the cause of women in STEM.
Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is presently working on a memoir. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram