Having recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the institute, there is no denying the drastic changes that have taken place over the years since its establishment. Starting out as an academic establishment almost entirely dominated by men, IIT Bombay no longer presents itself in those demographic monotones. Albeit not in very impressive numbers, we do have female professors, researchers and students on campus that are doing impressive work in their fields.
The transition of IITB over the years into a haven of acceptance and diversity has definitely been pushed by the institute’s willingness to change, but more importantly, has also been driven by the sheer passion and determination of the women who have studied and worked here.
In this article we attempt to capture the journey over the years for the women of IITB, their struggles and success, and the choices they made that determined their future.
Ms. Hattiangadi is the Additional Independent Director of Alkyl Amines Chemicals Ltd since November, 2018. Starting her career in 1975, she moved up through various senior positions in the chemical industry. Ms. Hattiangadi was the second female chemical engineer from IIT Bombay and went on to earn a masters from the University of Massachusetts. In this interview, she highlights the importance of ‘determination and resolve’ that she felt when starting out in, what would turn out to be, an impressive career in chemical engineering.
Q1. How did your career as a Chemical Engineer start out?
My first job was in the Tata Consulting Engineering company. The best part about recruitment by Tata was that they recruited you on basis of merit. If you are a good engineer and you clear the interviews, they would hire you, irrespective of gender.
When I went to my first project site, it was an under construction site and they had never had a female Chemical Engineer before and so there were no on-site bathrooms for me.
So whenever I wanted to go to the loo, I would just give a shout from outside, saying “Guys, I need to use the washroom” and they would come out immediately.
I have always believed that in life, with a bit of humour in life you can do anything.
Q2. Can you tell us about your pre-university schooling?
I went to an all-girls school, then Xavier’s and then IIT Bombay. My entrance interview for Xavier’s was quite unique, I went for the interview with my father and the head priest of the college was taking my interview and the first question he asked me was, “Why don’t you go to Sapphire (Sapphire was the all-girls college for science)”
My response to that was, that I was someone who wanted to compete with the best and that just girls wasn’t enough competition for me. I think they must have liked my confidence, because I got into Xavier’s and was one of the only 17 girls in a batch of 450 science students.
Q3. What is your opinion about the stereotypes that exist when it comes to women?
I think they are just stereotypes. In my opinion, there is nothing like arts is better suited for girls or less suited. My husband and I are both Chemical Engineers from IIT Bombay, we were classmates. But our son went on do Philosophy and Mathematics in Economics at Stanford. He did not go for engineering. His wife is an electrical engineer. It’s what you want to do, that should matter in the end.
Q4. Do you think women have internalised these stereotypes?
When I was working as an Engineer there were some girls who used to ask for special favours regarding not going on-site. I used to tell them not to ask for special favours just because they were female.
I believe that it is the barrier which we create in our heads which appears in our conduct. I don’t consider myself different from any guy. Of course, physically yes. But so what? I can always be at par intellectually.
I have always believed that I could do anything. It’s all in the mind. If you be a doormat, everyone will rub their foot on you. It used to happen sometimes that I would come home and be like I have to go to Japan. In such cases, my husband would take care of my son. I never felt like I was held back maybe I have been lucky, I don’t know or I have pulled luck to my side. If you keep cribbing – ‘Oh! My parents! or In-Laws’ then you can’t get anywhere. At sometimes you need to assert very nicely that I need to live life according to me.
Dr. Sharmila Sreekumar
[Photograph not consented to]
Dr. Sharmila is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. She explains her motivations to pursue arts in a setting where taking up sciences was the norm. Dr. Sharmila earned her Ph.D. from the University of Hyderabad, with a thesis on ‘Narratives of ‘dominant women’ in Kerala’ and has been teaching literature at IITB for the past 15 years. In this interview, she offers a scrupulous description of the role that gender stereotypes and dynamics play in the lives of women.
Q1. Why did you decide to pursue a career in Humanities?
Probably as an act of adolescent defiance?! Everyone around seemed convinced that science was the only option to take after high school. I guess, I just chose to take another route. It also helped that I really liked the arts.
Q2. Have prejudices impacted your life and that of women around you?
In various ways, I think. For instance, I went to a “school reunion” recently. I went to one of those “English medium” private schools that boasts of attracting the middle class. Several of our parents were professionals and none of us had to battle too many odds growing up–or so I would imagine. And yet when I looked around, very few of the girls from my class had gone into paying jobs. Even some of the extremely bright girls who topped every exam in school had settled down as home-makers. Did they actively choose to, I wonder? And under what circumstances?
Q3. How do you think have stereotypes changed over the years, if at all?
Stereotypes endure, that is what marks a stereotype. This is not, of course, to say that stereotypes are changeless. Sure, they go through internal refurnishings ever so often. Even more substantial changes. But I guess I want to draw attention to how they also endure despite what are apparently rapid changes.
Take the case of the staff handbook that I got when I joined IITB. The member of this institution’s faculty was presumed to be (heterosexual) male. You can see that even today nobody has thought fit to amend the Statutes of IITB (http://iitb.ac.in/sites/default/files/IITBStatutes.pdf), where we have the detailing of a galaxy of male functionaries–their powers and responsibilities. Thus, there is the Chairman of the Board of Governors, the Chairman of the Senate, the Chairman of the Finance Committee, who each have “his own initiative(s)” ( p 11, p14, p15); there is the Director who in “his absence” can depute powers to other functionaries, also presumed to be easy bearers of male pronouns. And so on, ad nauseum. Besides demonstrating a staggering gender-blindness, this also demonstrates how stereotypes have astounding powers to live on.
Q4. Regarding stereotypes that affect students negatively, have you done anything to ensure that they do not affect?
I’ve noticed how women scholars tend to undervalue and underrate their achievements. If a woman has made it this far, you can bet that she is gritty, works hard and is intelligent. And yet, ask her to discuss her work and she is likely to talk far more about all the work that she has not done, rather than the work that she has accomplished. I have often been struck by how different this is from the men scholars, who generally speaking, have noticeably fewer problems discussing their achievements. I am not saying that that is somehow wrong. But often, in a world that expects scholars to position themselves in a certain way, male scholars continue to get centre-stage because women, despite doing remarkable work, are not as prompt to take credit for their accomplishments.
Dr. Arpita Mondal
Dr. Mondal has been an assistant professor since 2015 in the department of Civil Engineering at IIT Bombay. She earned her PhD from the venerable Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore. She articulates about stereotypes women still have to face in academia but how see envisions an optimistic future for women in the engineering domain.
Q1. How encouraging were your parents in your decision to pursue sciences?
I had liberal parents. Well, my dadi (grandmother) was a little orthodox in little things here or there, but my mother made sure that my brother and I were treated equally. I had quite an interest in mathematics and biology and was inspired by female professors.
Q2. Did the professors discriminate against women students?
Not much in a BTech class. But when you consider postgraduate students, one-on-one interactions there make a more significant difference. Take this for example the case in which females are typically asked about their marriage plans in their interviews, while males might not be. Faculty applications also asked the same questions back then to female candidates. It’s been better now, but it’s only gotten more subtle. A senior professor once asked me during my initial recruitment days, “So, when are you inviting us for food at home?” and I was pretty shameless about it and asked him whether he asked the male colleagues the same thing.
Q3. How have stereotypes regarding women changed over the years?
Stereotypes have improved very little. Still, boys with disheveled hair and shabby appearances are okay, but the same for a girl is not. Take sexist jokes and the fact that we are not even aware that these things are, in fact, sexist. Our education system right from childhood needs to change. There is still gender insensitivity quite prevalent.
Q4. Do you feel hopeful seeing more females in the engineering domain?
Currently most of the female students in the institute definitely belong to the rather privileged section. I would love to see a future where students are absolutely not bothered by their genders for pursuing their interests and that you don’t necessarily have to belong to a privileged family to pursue a career, particularly engineering.
Himani Shah is the co-founder of Intello Labs, a platform that allows users to compare different attributes of e-commerce products online. She is also a graduate of the Dual Degree Programme in Mechanical Engineering from IITB. Ms. Shah describes what the word ‘ambition’ means for a successful entrepreneur like her and how she thinks that everyone should strive for independence and self-reliance irrespective of one’s gender.
Q1. Would you say, “women experience bias in jobs?”
If you see any company’s gender ratio then at entry level you’ll see a good enough ratio for women but as you move higher up there are mostly men. That said, there is more and more consciousness everywhere and people want women to grow. There is sort of a pressure or awareness coming from higher management to have more gender diversity in their core group or decision making teams.
Q2. How have stereotypes regarding women changed?
I wouldn’t say all but there are companies that have a culture which is friendly to women. There are daycares everywhere and people understand if you have to take maternity leave after marriage. In fact my co-founder has worked in Sweden and there it is actually allowed to bring your baby to the office. Like your baby is there and you are working and going to the meetings. So a lot of that mentality is slowly getting in that it’s okay to have both a family and a career
Q3. In face of such challenges, is it difficult for women to become entrepreneurs?
Not really, no. I think it’s more personal. it’s not because of the gender that you have to face more challenges. There might be more challenges from social factors but if you have a good support system then being a woman in itself is not a challenge. My family and my husband were very supportive. And in fact because my husband has a stable job, it was easier for me to do entrepreneurship, because there is still a steady income in the family. In fact in that sense it’s actually more difficult for men whose wives are not working because your basic necessities have to be taken care of.
Q4. Why do you think career should be important for a girl?
Honestly for me my ambition isn’t to have a career, for me being independent and self-sufficient is important. I think that the same should be for anybody, be it a girl or a guy. Like a guy should know how to cook for himself and a girl should know how to earn and be independent. I think how you manage it as a family is your own decision but I personally believe that independence is important. Let’s say if you were to live alone or travel, too much of dependency won’t be good for your own self-confidence.
It should not be like if my husband or boyfriend leaves me what will I do?
There are a lot of women in poorer sections of society like those who are our maids whose husbands don’t do anything. These women are also independent but still they are not leaving their men. I think the problem there is that in some way they are emotionally dependent on the man. I believe that this should not be the case, they should be happy and independent without needing a man in there life.
While these women seem to share a similar backdrop of hailing from progressive families, the privilege to be able to choose and pursue their interests did not preclude them from having to face inequitable challenges compared to their male counterparts.
Irrespective of the type of challenges that they faced, the one thing that is clear is that if you want to shatter any preconceived notions of the society then you need to first believe that they can be shattered. Your faith in yourself and a desire to prove yourself to the world will help you achieve your dreams despite the circumstances.
These women are a living testament of what equal opportunity and an undeterred drive to succeed can do. Besides furthering the legacy of IITB, they are also role models for upcoming academicians and entrepreneurs in this very institute.