My STEM career: Walking the tightrope of competing demands
Written By: Ranjani
Edited By: Anna Mohan
Media mentions about powerful women in STEM make me happy. Occasionally I feel pride but mostly they make me smile.
Last month I came across an article about Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO juxtaposed next to a photograph of the four women pilots who made history by helming Air India’s first non-stop flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru. For the former, it must not have been easy to steer an organization that was front and centre in a year marked by a pandemic. For the latter, much hard work and breaking of invisible glass ceilings must have occurred before their successful maiden flight that flew over the North pole, reduced flying time and minimised the carbon footprint. I rejoiced in their public success despite knowing that these snippets didn’t tell the full story.
However, a retweet featuring Flavia Tata Nardini, co-Founder of Fleetspace Technologies, accurately displayed the oft-hidden scenes from the life of a high-achieving woman. It showed the rocket scientist speaking at a podium, with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side holding a toy while looking straight at the camera accompanied by these words:
“I had planned to talk about space and STEM to hundreds of schoolgirls at Loreto and I didn’t have a babysitter and my little one didn’t want to leave my arms and her sister didn’t want to miss out and so she stood very proud next to me.”
The tweet spoke directly to me. As a fellow woman scientist, I could see the triumph and the struggle embedded in that picture. It conveyed much more than what could be expressed in the mere 280 character limit imposed by Twitter.
It was a story that I am intimately familiar with. And so are all the women who choose STEM careers.
Women and STEM - natural affinity or mutually incompatible?
When it was time for me to choose a field of study in college, I chose science. I had always done well academically in school and was ready to embark on what I considered was the next logical step in my education. My mother was not very supportive. Given her advanced degree in mathematics, I was surprised at her reluctance. She had always been my biggest supporter. But she was also the most pragmatic person I knew.
Her hesitation did not stem from a belief that girls could not innately do well in scientific fields. Her concerns were more practical. She could foresee the potholes on the road that I had chosen.
Across the world, although children of all genders do equally well at math and science at young ages, fewer girls take up higher education in STEM fields. And even for those women who do pursue education and join the workforce, they tend to drop out in large numbers, particularly after having children. Gender stereotypes, workplace discrimination, family-unfriendly practices along with lower pay, are cited as reasons. What makes me sad is that these factors have remained unchanged in the three decades since I embarked on my PhD.
As a student and later as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, I enjoyed the challenge of solving complex problems, the thrill of working in laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment, and the honour of being in the presence of eminent scientists who I could respect for their scientific knowledge and their humility was a part of my everyday work life.
Yet, I knew that advancing in my chosen field of pharmaceutical research would be contingent upon factors that were beyond my control, including those that were related to my gender.
Walking the tightrope of competing demands
When I moved out of the academic environment, on the first day of my job at a large pharmaceutical company, I had to sign a document requiring female employees to ‘promptly’ disclose pregnancy (or the intention to get pregnant).
“Do I need to sign this?” I was the only person who asked HR this question.
“We work with drugs of unknown toxicity and want to protect our employees from unintended exposure to the baby.” She gave me the well-rehearsed answer. Her reply, instead of being reassuring, was a reminder that such a release was not required of male employees.
My biology was not a barrier for landing the job, but it would certainly be a factor for future decisions in my personal life that could intersect with my professional life. Would my personal and professional ambitions always be at odds, I wondered?
When my daughter was born, I found it challenging to reconcile the demands of motherhood while conducting experiments in the laboratory. My work could not be easily turned off at the end of a nine-to-five workday.
For women scientists who walk the tightrope of home and work, mothering and managing, the role models are few, genuine supporters rare, and wholehearted well-wishers practically non-existent.
Moreover, there is a gender disparity that applies not just to salary but also opportunities for advancement. It is a miracle that the few women who stick around, actually stay the course.
The unique contributions of role models
Regardless of the dismally small number of women who have won Nobel prizes, women have demonstrated their drive and ability to make significant contributions to STEM fields by launching satellites into space and leading successful scientific enterprises.
While the romance of making it big strikes a chord with some, for most of us trying our best to just get through each day, it is not the lure of phenomenal success that keeps us going.
Interacting with women who were working role models within the sphere of my daily life - both at work and in-home settings, helped me pick up the skills I lacked. By observing how other women managed their various responsibilities, I learnt to efficiently manage my time. By seeking recommendations, whether it was for a reliable babysitter or housecleaner, I discovered the power of personal endorsement. Instead of one infallible role model, I sought out a composite set of strengths and skills from the women (and men) around me to develop habits and behaviours that would advance my goals.
The best way to ensure a woman’s success is to provide a non-discriminating environment, appropriate words of encouragement and non-condescending support from colleagues and superiors.
Showing up matters, so does flexibility
Having worked in three different countries so far, I have found myself in various situations. In my early career in the United States, I sometimes had the dubious distinction of being the only immigrant woman in a meeting. When I returned to India, I was not a racial minority but was often the only woman in many conference rooms. It was impossible to ignore the additional burden I carried.
By my presence and influence in that room, I tried to set an example for other women like me who may have started on par with men while receiving an education but found themselves unsupported when they tried to follow through. I saw myself as a symbol of what was indeed possible, although not easy.
When my daughter was in preschool, I remember taking her to my workplace on “Bring your child to work day”. I was fascinated by the concept of taking your children to your workplace, thereby intersecting home and work, the two distinct spaces that formed the continuum of my life.
Given the gender disparity in the sciences, and as a pharmaceutical scientist myself, I wanted my daughter to realize early on that for her, a career in science was very much a possibility.
I remember thinking “It would be worthwhile if I could influence one woman to tread the scientific path, even if that is my daughter. Who knows, she may even win a Nobel?”
My daughter chose to pursue a quantitative, but non-scientific degree. Does this mean I have failed in my attempt to inspire the person most likely to follow in my academic footsteps? Was I not passionate enough? Should I have pushed her?
When I think back to my teenage years, I recollect my ambition arising from within myself, with no prompts from family. It was my inherent passion that got me started on my journey and has kept me going despite obstacles that thwart most people. I have not had great visibility or public success. I have had to reset my expectations and repeatedly answer the question of “what does success mean” to myself, keeping in my mind the limitations and priorities of my life as it took shape around the kernel of my career.
Women who stay in the workforce can serve as role models to the next generation of young women who embark on their careers with dreams and ambitions.
But they can do more by speaking up, advocating for benefits and putting forward useful suggestions.
I have participated in committees to address work-life balance, helped convince management to support on-site daycare at the workplace and seen through my own experience how flexibility helps retain high performing employees.
Women in all professions, not just STEM, need to think about how they can contribute directly and impact organizations and societies by doing more than just their job.
My primary goal in my work life has been to not drop out
In my long career, I have suffered miscarriages, moved across countries and continents and navigated multicultural work environments. I have been a trailing spouse, a single parent and a solopreneur. In all my avatars, I have tried to set an example by my persistence and by my resolve to stay the course.
In life, as in science, perseverance is a better indicator of success than talent.
And so I reiterate the words from Flavia Tata Nardin’s tweet because her picture represented my philosophy. She had shown up with her children when her support system had not. Because ultimately, women need to see that we all struggle, not just with the big goals but with the little details.