While the number of women aspiring to make a career in STEM is on the rise, we are yet to see equal representation in college classrooms, especially at coveted institutes such as ITTs of India whose corridors still remain heavily male-dominated. One of the many ways to change dynamics of gender here is by striking inspiration among young girls and bringing them stories of women who broke glass-ceilings in science or simply worked their way up with determination and talent to have successful careers.

Outside of history books, India has numerous women researchers and professors in the present who represent modern-day women of STEM in India. One such woman is Prof. Preeti Aghalayam, Department of Chemical Engineering, IIT Madras.

A marathon runner and blogger, Prof. Aghalayam talks with SheThePeople.TV on the biases that women in science have to deal with and how our society needs to be more open to the idea of young women making their own choices. When not teaching or running long distance, Preeti writes on the tyranny of the rasam and her love for food, life in the city.

Chemical Engineering has not been a very popular pick among women engineers. What made you veer towards it?

“JEE Rank” – two words that a lot of folks in my circle will nod their heads at. But, in my case, it was only one part of why I got into Chemical Engineering. Dad made me have a crazy number of discussions with his colleagues (all of them were professors in various disciplines), and they all suggested (some strongly, some gently) that at the undergraduate level, I must pick a stream that is more general and less specialised. I am very happy now with that – as I love the subject, and feel that it provides a great platform to make some contributions during my lifetime! (I don’t deny a bubble of resentment I felt at the way they went on and on with their opinions, but I was 17, I won’t blame myself much for that).

Have you ever faced bias in your career as a researcher due to your gender?

I have had a lot of luck in my life. Of course, I face irritations on a daily basis, assumptions about who I am, how I should behave, and so forth, just because I am a woman. I generally stand up and object. Nothing more serious. I am not saying the chemical engineering world is gender-blind, but I have managed to escape being viciously targeted or anything, slipped through the cracks maybe.

Few things that have bothered me are – being made the “Chairman” of a committee; my name listed in a roster as Prof. (Mrs.), while the men are all just Prof.

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Is there a gendered trend that you observe in classrooms in India, in engineering colleges?

Here at IIT Madras, the percentage of women in undergraduate classes is very small. 10-15 percent actually. It’s on the higher side in Chemical Engineering, compared to say, Mechanical Engineering. But the good news is that when it comes to our graduate studies (masters or Phd programs), our numbers are better (20-25 percent). It is gendered, no doubt, there are certain aspects of engineering that seem to be closed to women. I do see that the situation, with respect to numbers, is better in other engineering colleges around here, it makes me hopeful that more women will also choose careers in engineering in the future.

I am not saying the chemical engineering world is gender-blind, but I have managed to escape being viciously targeted or anything, slipped through the cracks maybe.

It was reported that in 2017 for instance only eight percent of IIT seats were occupied by women. What are the major deterrents when it comes to girls getting into IITs? 

This statistic refers to the undergraduate (B.Tech) program. The situation is better in the M.A., M.S., PhD and such programs, which make up for more than 50 percent of the student population here. But yes, definitely, the numbers and percentages of women in our B. Tech program (all disciplines) are abysmal. The reasons are myriad. Society places so much premium on this undergraduate education in the IITs; parents seem to at once put a lot of pressure and not encourage their daughters to undertake the coaching for the entrance exam; the exam is crazy competitive and requires a level of dedication that is border-line obsessive; the coaching classes are themselves very heavily male-dominated; etc.

I obtained my B.Tech degree from here myself, I was fortunate in that I did not face too much pressure during my school days. I loved studying and I had the support of my parents (both academics) and their colleagues. I was in a class where we were 5 women and 45 men, in IIT (this was 1991-’95). It was not easy to navigate that space, though it is very character-building (if I say so myself), and I enjoyed it. One thing is for sure – our young women can handle all these – the stress and rigour of the entrance exam, the hard work necessary to thrive in IIT, etc. – extremely well. The women who are here perform admirably, and generally go on to have very successful careers.

We will do well to very strongly encourage more of them to bite the bullet and work towards this – IF that is a future/career path that is of interest to them. We do also need a society that is more open to the idea of young women making their own choices, but that maybe too utopian a dream for now!

In March this year, it was announced that 20 percent of IIT seats were to be reserved for women. Do you think this is a step in the right direction? 

Initially, I was a bit opposed to it. In order for such a step to work well, all the stakeholders have to believe in its importance, I was thinking. In a discussion with Padmashri Prof. Rohini Godbole, I underwent a slight change of heart. A reasonable number is the first step to systemic change, and really, 20 percent is not really on par with the population! MIT now has 51 percent of its undergraduate Mechanical Engineering majors identifying as women. Mechanical Engineering. World’s most reputed institution. They did not get there by sitting on their hands and dreaming about an equitable future for all genders. They took concrete steps to promote awareness, inclusivity, and build faith that they were on the right track.

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How has history treated women in science according to you? Has it given them their due?

Let me simply answer this by saying that our history is dark. It is not an “us vs. them” issue for me. It is complex. It is opportunities, attitude, hard work, handling frustrations, staying in the game, not getting bogged down, fighting, fighting some more, doing better, being honest, being supportive, on part of all of us, to imagine a future that works better than the past did.

I recommend, at every opportunity I get, that people read and talk about Rosalind Franklin. A superb experimentalist, who pretty much cracked the case as far as the structure of the DNA is concerned. I visited the home of Carla Immerwahr in Berlin recently, I cried, I admit. For every Marie Curie that you know and laud, there are 100s of un-named women, who worked hard and tried to dedicate their life to their passion for science. Their stories are just not known, and their work has been stepped on so often.

Girls are increasingly showing interest in pursuing STEM, but the pressure to establish a work-life balance, often keeps them out of the workforce. What needs to be done to ensure that we do not lose the pool of talented, educated young women to the pressure to focus more on family life?

  1. Young people have to bravely step forward, suck it up and put in the time. If one is passionate about this, it is possible to make it work, by making smart choices (with as much awareness as possible) at every step.
  2. One important thing is to shut out those voices from everyone else and find our own inner one. Every path has its share of frustrations, sacrifices, and tough choices, but you get to remind yourself that you love this and chose it yourself, and that helps a lot.
  3. Those of us who are in the thick of things already, have to be better role models. We have to speak out against any injustices meted out to us, ensure that we are part of the system and re-build it, make the future better. We need to talk about the good and bad, with honesty and humanity.
  4. We have to redefine this whole “family life”, “women’s work” etc. concepts but that is true anyhow, and not necessarily because we need to stem the leaky STEM pipeline!

You are also a marathon runner? How did this love for running develop?

I have been running for a long time now – I was a bit of a sickly child when young, and at some point when I started training to play basketball regularly, I got better immunity-wise. I have not stopped since then. I make some jokes about how the loneliness of the long-distance runner is critical for a scientist to experience, to sort out thoughts and come up with new theories and so forth. I have had very few epiphanies, research-wise, during my runs though. Right now it is very painful to talk about running as it has not been really possible for me to do it since lockdown. I have only run a handful of kilometres, every few days. It’s frustrating! But, I have been exercising very very regularly anyhow, keeping fit, so I won’t complain much.

For every Marie Curie that you know and laud, there are 100s of un-named women, who worked hard and tried to dedicate their lives to their passion for science.

How has being a woman in the field of STEM influenced you as a parent? Did you consciously try to challenge stereotypes to set an example for your daughter?

I would like to believe that yes, I have challenged these consciously. We have a group of my women classmates from IIT, (20 of us were women in a batch of 350!), and we used to discuss these aspects when our children were babies.

My daughter is 16 now, very strongly opinionated, unlikely to follow in the STEM path, but definitely very aware of the issues related to women in STEM and in society in general. Recently, she has been writing as well, and it has been eye-opening for me to read her articulations on her blog.

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I give due credit to my husband as well, he is pretty “woke” if I may use one of these weird modern terms to describe a very intelligent, well-read, caring and strong man. We have tried to be conscious as parents, we discuss a lot. Initially the two of us, but now the three of us have all these topics we bring up and debate.

Any words of encouragement for young girls who intend to pursue a career in STEM?

Yes! Be strong, be open-minded. Remember that you will have to fight, but if you do it the right way, it makes you stronger rather than wearing you down.

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