Indian women in science find the going tough even today. How did early women scientists manage their careers?
By Dr.Chandrima Pal
The lives of early Indian women scientists are fascinating. They loved science and math in school; they went to college, did their PhDs and post-doctoral research. They traveled to several countries for their research and finally settled in India with academic jobs. They also got married, had children and cared for their growing families. Their lives included an interest in the husband’s career and strong hobbies.
It can all sound a bit euphoric for women working in science today. But it is true and these scientific women; Dr. Archana Dasgupta and Dr. Sulekha Hazra have done it all in the1970s; at exactly the same time when women were liberating themselves all over the world and Indian women were coming out of their cocooned lives slowly.
Indian women in science today can learn and be inspired by Dr. Dasgupta and Dr. Hazra’s lives.
Indian women scientists: Life after marriage
They were both among the few Indian women who chose science in those days and went in for higher education. Since a very tender age they observed their fathers and older siblings practicing science as engineers or doctors, thus igniting their passion for science.
Dr. Dasgupta got married after finishing her bachelors in Chemistry from Tagore’s Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan and Dr. Hazra while doing her PhD in Physiology at Raja Bazar Science College, under the Calcutta University. Their husbands being science professionals in related subjects helped them to continue in science. At the same time it also put them into a situation, which still prevails in academic couples – the two-body trap i.e., finding two suitable job positions in the same city.
Both of them moved to western countries following their husbands’ post-doctoral stint, a scenario common even today. After staying at home for a while, Dr. Dasgupta says, “I spent a semester auditing several courses at the University after some persuasion from my husband’s boss. After this, I started taking credit courses and enrolled in the Masters program.”
They were both among the few who chose science in those days and went in for higher education.
Dr. Hazra had the challenge of finishing her PhD defense. She reminisces, “I talked with several professors in my field at Harvard University and contacted my PhD guide and administration of Calcutta University (Keep in mind that no emails, mobile phones or ISD connections were there in those days) and could luckily arrange my defense without returning to India.” On completing her PhD, she started looking for post-doctoral research options and luckily found one in Harvard University.
Both ladies were aware of English culture and language while growing up and hence were not intimidated by the strong English accent of a foreign country. They went to work mostly wearing saris with thick jumpers and boots as add-ons, despite the cold weather.
Women in science: Career transitions
On returning to India Dr. Dasgupta opted for PhD in Chemistry in Calcutta University, while her husband returned to Santiniketan. She also became a mother at this time. She went to Canada again for her post-doctoral studies along with her husband. Later she joined a school in India to teach chemistry.
In order to balance her family and work, she took a detour and went for a B.Ed. degree, and taught as an adjunct faculty in a college for some years. Finally, as her children were in high school, she joined as a faculty in a college, more than 100 kms away from Santiniketan. She could visit her family only on weekends and this continued until she retired. She never complained.
Dr. Hazra went searching for a job in Pune, where her husband was relocated. She had to change her subject of research. She came out of her comfort zone to take up the challenge and started researching on plant biotechnology. It was a challenging period with the challenges of returning to India, raising small children, learning a new subject and building her own group all at once. She had to prove that she was competent enough through temporary positions before being absorbed as a full time scientist.
Despite taking a break for more than two years to take care of her child,she survived it all and worked as a scientist for many more years. Both these women tested their limits and undeniably became empowered Indian women.
Parenting challenges of women in science
Both of them are proud science mothers of kids, who have grown up to be extremely responsible and caring adults and with a strong interest in science. Both ladies had days when they felt that they could no longer bear the pressures of struggling hard at work places and looking after the children. There were times of immense guilt. Dr. Dasgupta remolded her career aspirations, to get rid of the guilt. Later when she was a long-distance parent she made it a point to have their Saturday lunches together. In her words, “I used to eagerly wait to see my kids and hear their stock of stories.”
Both ladies had days when they felt that they could no longer bear the pressures of struggling hard at work places and looking after the children. There were times of immense guilt.
Dr. Hazra even considered opening a day-care centre for children, so that other women could continue with their careers. Their husbands took part in co-parenting and they got support from extended family members too. They also hired housemaids whenever possible. Still, Dr. Hazra says, “There were days when I had to take my children to the laboratory to finish my experiments while supervising their studies.”
Both of them believe that it is difficult for women at any time to dissociate completely from the well being of their children. They agree that today’s women in science have more choices but still go through immense pressure to pick those.
How Indian women survive the grind
Both of them kept the lines of communication open with their husbands, children and extended families. They believed that life is imperfect and did not mind taking up extreme physical and emotional stress at times; house chores, long commutes or learning new subjects and techniques. Unlike many of their contemporaries they both are computer proficient.
They did not compete with their husbands, rather they redefined their own success. They also did not mind modulating their career paths according to the available opportunities, even if it meant taking a small step down.
Both of them have strong opinions and don’t hesitate to speak their minds, for which they are respected by colleagues and family members. They are very hearty women, love to laugh and make friends among all ages and gender. This strategy strengthened them during their tough times. Both Dr. Dasgupta and Dr. Hazra love doing Sudoku and Dr. Dasgupta also loves buying jigsaw puzzles for her grand children. Dr. Hazra loves singing, cooking and is involved in many social activities. She still works as an advisor for an establishment of a new institute in Kolkata.
They did not wait for opportunity to come their way but looked for it, picked it, nurtured it and kept walking on self-made paths.
*Photo credit: Dr. Archana Dasgupta