I came to the United States more than thirty-five years ago to join my husband who was already there. I stayed back in India until 1976 to have my first child and finish my doctorate in Chemistry at IIT, Madras. I was sure that my future work in science would continue without hitches. I realized how naïve I had been then…..
It did not take me long to come to the conclusion that while I juggled managing my growing family, keeping the house clean and cooking in between, I had to make some choices.For one year I did my post-doctoral research in Boston, but we soon moved to Chicago. Here, I was not able to take up a full-time job with all my home obligations and science did not allow me to do anything part-time. What was I to do? My sister who came to visit, urged me to learn Spanish and that changed my life! I went to night classes and started learning the language. Then a friend advised me to teach English as a Second language (ESL) and I easily found a part-time job teaching ESL to Spanish speakers. Chemistry was put aside and I spent many years working with low-income students and their parents speaking Spanish and teaching English.
After several years, I found a job teaching mathematics and science to low-income students and their parents who spoke mainly Spanish. Then I started teaching Chemistry in a small community college for minority students from all over the world. I have been doing this even after retiring from my regular job and enjoy working with these students who will become future science and math teachers in schools.
My experience in making adjustments in career is not unusual; many women do it all the time. So when we talk about the role of women in science, I have to admit that we have limited choices because of our gender and we make and create our own roles based on what we can get done after cleaning, cooking and taking care of our children.
I listened to all the alumni (on February 8th) who were mostly men, speak about their achievements. I could not help but think of the fact that they were all able to push themselves because there must have been a sister, or a mother or even a wife back home, taking care of all that needs to be done so these men could stay late and work in their laboratories and offices. We talk about women being liberated these days and glibly say that things are much better for them. Women are liberated in the sense that now more of them are going to schools and universities to study science but there still isn’t equality when it comes to how they are treated in and outside the home. After almost forty years, we finally do have three women professors in the Chemistry Department. I guess that is progress, considering we had none when I was studying!
Dr. K. V. Reddy, my classmate, gave an inspiring lecture in IIT. He talked about his MSc interview and how he was almost rejected from the program, because of his limited English-speaking skills. Two professors on the interview panel strongly supported admitting him, because his grades were good. Dr. Reddy stated that he considered them his mentors, his spokespersons.
Women need mentors too. I shall never forget the fact that I felt nervous, intimidated and afraid to go and talk to any male professor after class when I was a student. (I hope things are different today.) Yet all my male classmates could hang out with the professors and discuss any subject with them. I would have loved to do the same! I am glad to see that now the young girls in the MSc or PhD program have the opportunity to spend time talking to the female professors. Seeing a female professor might encourage some of these women to hope that they can one day become a professor! Female role models were hardly present either in science or in the department when I was a student.
My experiences made me stronger. However, I also know that I was privileged in many ways even though I have struggled to continue my career in science. I did not have to work outside the home to make ends meet, since my husband had a lucrative career. I wanted to work because I love chemistry, I love science. On the other hand, there are thousands of women in the field of science, working outside the home to have a decent income and also managing their homes in creative ways.
We need to be talking about how women fashion their lives and therefore their roles based on what is going on in their homes. Men do not have to make these choices. Gender bias is still alive and very present in the twenty-first century. The positive changes are only just beginning and we have a long way to go. But I am very hopeful when I see the diversity and enthusiasm of the student body at IIT today.
Dr. Shobha Sharma finished her MSc in 1972 and PhD in 1976 from IIT Madras.She was the Literary Secretary of Sarayu Hostel during her MSc. She was a part of the Chemistry reunion organised by IITM and is the Vice President of the IIT Madras Alumni Association of Midwest Chapter.