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Balance for the better: Empowering Women and Family!

This is a blog I started writing last year but did not complete. The recent birth anniversary of Periyar (17th September) and passing away of the second women to become a Supreme Court Judge in the USA, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (18th September) motivated me enough to complete it today. Ruth was shocked to learn that she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child in 1955. [1] She rose in her career and ensured to give judgements that protected working women and men.

I attended the Gordon Research Conference in Orange County, California in 2016 and Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s Physical Chemistry Conference in Perth, Australia in 2019. Both these events had a special session to discuss about empowering women in Science. The International Advisory Committee members of the International Symposium in Shock Waves got emails from a group pointing out that there was no women in the list of plenary speakers in 2019! Compare this to what was happening during the 1930s in Tamil Nadu. E V Ramasamy organized self-respect conferences [2] all over Tamil Nadu and in most of these conferences women were the lead speakers! During one of this meeting, he was given the title Periyar, a noble human. His views on feminism might appear too liberal even to the left-wing liberals of today. [3] Often it becomes important to pull the pendulum to the other extreme to bring balance.

On 6th April 2019, we had a panel discussion on “Balance for the better: Empowering Women” at the Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department, Indian Institute of Science. I had become the Chair during October 2018. We have an Al(l)Chemist’s Society in the Department, which is managed by the third year Ph. D. students. They take care of the ‘extra-curricular activities’ for the Department and arrange several of them throughout the year. On 19th January 2019, we had a panel discussion on ‘Social Responsibilities of Science/Scientists’. I should write about it some time too. I have been planning to write about this meeting for some time and could not do it yet. The decision in May 2019 of the Senate in Alabama to ban all abortions and the attack on Vidyasagar’s statue in Kolkata around that time pushed me to start the blog in May 2019, but did not complete it.

Secretary of Al(l)Chemist’s Society, Ms. Rinkumoni, wanted to have one lecture arranged on 8th March, which happens to be the International Women’s day. The President of Al(l)Chemist’s Club is Dr. K. Geetharani, first woman faculty in our Chemical Sciences Division since the early 1990s. Their first choice for the speaker was Prof. Rohini Godbole, an honorary Professor in the Center for High Energy Physics at IISc now and she also received Padmashri award in 2019. She has been an outstanding physicist and has also championed the cause of Women in India and all over the world. We could not do it on 8th March as Prof. Godbole had other commitments. I was suggesting to the Al(l)Chemist’s society that we could have a panel discussion on this important topic. April 6th was chosen, as that was when Prof. Godbole and the other panelists were all available. (This happens to be the birthday for my wife and an aunt who was staying with us when we were both working full time. I was delighted with this coincidence but did not tell about this in the meeting ). We had three other professionals in the panel discussion. They were: Prof. Dipshikha Chakravortty, Professor at the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and also Chair of the Internal Committee Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH) at IISc; Dr. Nirmala Rajendran, one of the Medical Officers in our Health Center, also a member of ICASH; and an alumnus of our Department currently working in an Industry, who does not want to be named.

Prof. Godbole started the day with a talk on Women in STEM. She started by informing the audience that she had given talks on this topic all over the world, except in IISc, in a meeting she did not organize. It was indeed a surprise and I was glad that our Department did it. She brought out an important point. It is not just that women need to do Science. Equally Science needs women. So, she felt the title ‘Empowering women’ itself is misleading. I was somewhat relieved that Al(l)Chemist’s added ‘Balance for the better’ to the title I had suggested. All over the world, it is being recognized that diversity in work place does improve the performance of an organization.

Dr. Nirmala Rajendran spoke about health issues of working women. One important suggestion she gave was that women should not hesitate in asking others to contribute in sharing the workload at home. Often working women put so much burden on themselves and feel guilty of doing less both at work and home and it is important to avoid this guilt trap. Dr. Nirmala gave important tips for women about how to stay healthy in a professional career. Our Department does have a significant number of women among our Ph.D. research scholars and her talk would have been useful.

Prof. Dipshikha Chkaravortty spoke about the Institute Committee Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH) and informed the students about what one could do when facing sexual harassment in the lab. A teacher-student relationship is unequal and it is important that the teacher does not exploit this. Having power and not misusing it should really be the norm. However, misuse happens often and suffering in silence becomes the norm. Every system is trying to bring in rules and regulations to stop sexual harassment. Our Institute has established ICASH and Prof. Chakravortty discussed about the committee’s efforts to stop sexual harassment in the campus. I was shocked to read a statement from Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Wikipedia page [2]: She also reflected on her own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including a time when a chemistry professor at Cornell unsuccessfully attempted to trade her exam answers for sex. She had mentioned this during the Metoo movement expressing her support recently.

The fourth speaker was an alumnus from our Department working in an industry after some time in academia. I wish she could have continued in academia and realized she had to quit for personal reasons. It rarely happens to men. During her talk, I realized how important it is to have representation from all sections before making a decision. In the Department she served, there was a discussion about when to have a faculty meeting to discuss budget. Based on overwhelming choice, not a simple majority, it was decided to have this meeting in late evenings, 7 – 8 PM. I can relate to this decision in a new Institute trying to establish it’s name. However, she could rarely attend this meeting having a young kid to take care off. She did point out about a male colleague who had this same problem as his wife was working in another town and he had to take care of their kid after office hours. This is precisely why we need participatory democracy and rule of law ensuring that minority rights are protected. While a majority is enough to form a Government, decisions affecting a group cannot be made without hearing their opinion.

After the four lectures, we had a panel discussion involving all the participants, moderated by Rinkumoni. Four speakers served as panel members. The discussion was lively. It was pre-covid days and we did not record the proceedings. I wish we had. As I had mentioned above, when forcing a required change, one sees that the pendulum goes to the other extreme. I added family to the title today. Peiryar pointed out that family is oppressive to women. I have seen this to be true all over the world. I also feel family is a very important small unit for humans. While ensuring that women are not suppressed and harassed is extremely important, throwing the family structure would be similar to throwing the baby with hot water.

Ultimately, it is important for humans to find the right balance and act towards personal and common good. Both Periyar and Ambedkar, who lived their lives fighting for social causes, married much younger women when they were really old. These marriages were both based on mutual consent and for me they do not invalidate their work. As I get closer to 60, I feel it is important to have someone to share your life with. An Abdul Kalam or an Anna Mani could remain single and have a long and successful professional career and life. For most ordinary human beings, like me, it is good to have someone to call as a family. It is possible to have one where every member can pursue their interest and find a way to balance their individual and collective growth. That is indeed balance for the better.

References:

  1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg Accessed on 20 September 2020.
  2. S. Anandi, Women’s question in the Dravidian movement 1925-1948, Social Scientist Vol. 19, No. 5/6 (May – Jun., 1991), pp. 24-41 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3517871
  3. Periyar feminism, Ed. K. Veeramani, 2010. Periyar Maniammai University publication.

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