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If you thought that today’s girls need encouragement and mentorship to pursue engineering in America, imagine the situation when women pursued the study of engineering decades ago in India. A new book – Roots and Wings – written by Dr. Shantha Mohan chronicles the lives of these pioneering women who braved many obstacles to pursue their career goals.
The book chronicles the lives and careers of 29 women who graduated from the oldest engineering college in India, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) in Chennai, sometime between 1943 and 1971. This was a difficult time for these pioneering women to pursue their chosen path, yet they all went on to make their mark in their unique ways in various fields of work in India as well as in the USA. Overcoming several obstacles to their careers, these women managed to find a good balance between family and work. A few were, and are, also great community leaders. Their lives are models of courage, initiative, perseverance, innovation, entrepreneurship, resilience and flexibility. Some of them made their careers here in America.
The book’s author – Dr. Shantha Mohan, is an entrepreneur and software engineering leader. Currently she is an Executive in Residence at the Integrated Innovation Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley where she mentors masters students and guides them in their practicums. She practices her public speaking at Toastmasters. She is a grandmother of three adorable children and grabs every opportunity she gets to spend time with them.
Given below is a fascinating interview of Dr. Shantha Mohan with India Currents Managing Editor, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan.
NV: Why did you write this book?
SM: At the end of 2016, I retired from Retail Solutions, the company I co-founded in the Silicon Valley, and decided to spend my time mentoring, and giving back to the educational institutions which made my career possible. I also started to become very active on the professional social network, LinkedIn, as well as my alumni network. While doing my undergraduate in engineering at the College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), Chennai, the oldest engineering college in India, I was focused solely on my studies, and was oblivious to the rich history of my alma mater, and the special place that very few women there held among the thousands of male engineering students.
Now, with the community at large developing high awareness of the importance of encouraging women to participate in the fields of technology and engineering, I wanted to put female role models in front of girls and women to promote STEM education, and decided that a good way to do that was to write about the CEG alumnae who started this in India. It was also a good way to give back to my alma mater, by making the college visible on the global educational scene. I started posting individual stories on my website https://mathisarovar.com/ starting in May of 2017 with the goal of publishing the collection of stories as a book.
NV: Growing up, what were the expectations regarding your education – from family and friends? What drew you to the study of engineering? Did you have any mentors at school or college who helped you on this path?
SM: My father, who was a doctor, was also a brilliant scholar. He was admitted to medical and engineering colleges, but ended up choosing medicine, since he had to take care of his widowed mother, and engineering would have required him to stay in the hostel at that time. I heard him say hat he missed studying engineering because of this, and that made me want to study engineering to compensate for him not being able to do so. Also, I had always been curious about how things worked, and had an abiding interest in handling repairs and fixing things. There were no expectations in my family. My three sisters and I excelled academically, and we were encouraged to study whatever we wanted in college. My older sister chose to be a doctor, and I decided to be an engineer. I really had no one to guide me except for my own interest.
NV: In your workplace, were experiences of female engineers different from male engineers? How did you overcome this?
SM: I never really gave my gender any thought when I was working. I just wanted to do my best in the field I had chosen. I never really questioned whether I should be doing what I was doing. It felt quite natural to me. It is only when I reached a leadership role that I looked around and found that I was the only woman at the table, but even that didn’t faze me. In my job at Consilium, (now part of Applied Materials) as engineering lead, I travelled all over the USA, and to countries such as Germany, France, Japan, Singapore, Scotland, and Taiwan, visiting semiconductor wafer fabs and talking to the customers directly about their problems and needs. One visit to Oki Semiconductor in Japan is memorable for a meeting I had in its smoke-filled conference room with an all-male group, except for just one other woman there who served tea, an experience which I remember even today. Each of us is a unique individual, and I am sure that my experience was probably different from what other women experienced.
NV: There is so much talk in the present day about the gap seen in male versus female tech employment. What are your views on this topic?
SM: Women are roughly half of the total population, and this ratio is true in America too. The 2018 US statistics seem to show that women in the workforce is proportional to their ratio in the overall population. However, when it comes to the American tech workforce, according to https://www.dreamhost.com/blog/state-of-women-in-tech/ , only a quarter of all computing jobs are held by women, and even this seems to be on a downward trajectory. It also appears that women leave tech jobs at more than twice the rate as men (yes, men leave tech jobs too!).
In India, where I come from, the situation is similar. http://blog.belong.co/gender-diversity-indian-tech-companies says women are 26% of the engineering workforce.
I recently conducted an informal survey (not a scientific sample however because the survey population size was small). The reasons cited for the gap between men and women were: not enough flexibility to help women balance work and family commitments, long hours expected at work that women with family commitments could not afford to spend, and not much opportunity for advancement.
Today, technology is advancing at a rapid pace. If an employee stops or takes a break from working for any reason – marriage and relocation, parenting, or elder-care – it is very hard to get back into a rapidly changing tech scene. Many women opt to get out of tech jobs to follow other career paths. There are some initiatives in the industry to help women (or men) re-skill. For example, IBM has a re-entry program https://www-03.ibm.com/employment/inclusion/techreentry.html that is aimed at helping those who took a break to restart their careers. Such programs are available around the world, not only in the tech sector, according to https://www.irelaunch.com/paidcorporateprograms.
NV: Is there anything else regarding this book that you would like to share with our readers?
SM: Several women from the book have made America their home. One of them, Sarada Parthasarathy, just turned 90, and lives near San Francisco. Prabavathi Kawai had a very brief career as an engineer, and she now lives in Michigan. Nalini Uhrig, who had a long and illustrious career at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, Columbus, Ohio, and later in Lucent Technologies is now retired and lives in Florida. One of the most successful women in the book, Radha Basu, a serial entrepreneur, and the CEO of iMerit Technologies, a global , social, enterprise, also makes the SF Bay area her home. And of course, I live here in the Bay area as well.
This book is written in simple prose so that even girls who receive a vernacular education in India can read and relate to the stories here. They can learn about life as an engineer, and have high aspirations for their educational and professional goals.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/IndianWomenEngineers/
100% of the royalties from this book go towards supporting girls’ education through the Rotary Club Madras East, Chennai, India.
Cover Picture credit: Siva Shankaran Vasanth
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.