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Hurrah For These Women Achievers!

Last updated on: February 22, 2024 11:32 IST

More and more women are making their presence felt in jobs related to sciences, technology, and engineering across organisations.

IMAGE: The ISRO tableau with the eight women scientists passes through Kartavya Path during the 75th Republic Day parade, January 26, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

A Lalitha, born 1919, was married at the age of 15. At 18, she became a mother and her husband died four months after the birth of her daughter.

In a remarkable twist, instead of leading the life society expected of widows back then, Lalitha went on to study at the College of Engineering, Guindy, University of Madras. In 1944, she became India's first woman engineer.

Lalitha's story is usually recalled every year on February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, usually with a touch of wistfulness, because India did not see a wave of women engineers in her wake.

At this year's Republic Day parade, eight women scientists waved to the crowd from a tableau representing Chandrayaan 3; another 220 from the Indian Space Research Organisation were special invitees at the parade.

There is a chance India could have its first woman astronaut in the none-too-distant future. ISRO Chairman S Somanath has said the premier space organisation would welcome women to be part of the Gaganyaan astronaut corps.

This comes on the back of Lieutenant Chetana Sharma leading the Akash missile system during last year's Republic Day Parade. Lt. Sharma studied at the National Institute of Technology, Bhopal, and is an officer with the Indian Army's Air Defence Regiment.

These are not isolated instances. More and more women are making their presence felt in jobs related to sciences, technology, and engineering across organisations.

Overcoming stereotypes

Take Sonam Srivastava, for instance. Her typical day involves refining her artificial intelligence-powered investment models, analysing market data, and leading a team of 25.

The IIT Kanpur alum was always fascinated with mathematics and financial markets and, in 2019, started Wright Research, a portfolio management services company.

For Ruchi Agrawal, it all started in front of her school computer with programming languages BASIC and PASCAL keeping her company.

Now, as senior director at financial services firm Fiserv, she leads software development engineering for its global services business, making work more efficient for clients by modernising their online banking platforms.

Srivastava and Agrawal are part of a group that is multiplying, with the rising presence of women opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as their career choices.

Not too long ago, these were considered unconventional for women. The low percentage of women in STEM jobs in India comes despite 43 per cent of all STEM graduates in the country being women, according to World Bank data.

Corporate India is incorporating systems so that women willing to pursue STEM get the right mentorship and resources. Some, such as the NatWest group, Wayfair and Intuit, have set recruitment goals for women in tech.

Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Pune -- the beating hearts of tech innovation in India -- lead in hiring women in tech, according to a 2022 report by talent solutions provider Careernet.

"Overcoming stereotypes and establishing credibility can be daunting," says Srivastava of Wright Research. But it also offers opportunities to drive change, and to mentor and inspire the next generation.

Her Mumbai-based firm has women leading its content and quant research teams. Its senior full-stack developer is a woman.

That fits in with the first-time founder's goal to "not just hire a specific number but to create an environment where women in science and finance can thrive".

Uma Rudhran, Agrawal's senior colleague at Fiserv, has gone places before taking the seat of vice-president of infrastructure and cyber security for global services.

Crisscrossing BFSI (banking, financial services, and insurance), telecom, hi-tech, and life sciences, Rudhran makes sure the company's platforms are stable and secure.

It is not always easy, though not always because of other people.

Ankita Tripathy says she suffered from "severe imposter syndrome" upon joining Amazon Web Services in London office after her Master's in advanced computer science.

She limited herself to "my own shell" before realising it was coming in the way of her growth.

"Thankfully, I talked to my manager and my peers and pushed myself to do things I wouldn't usually do," Tripathy says. She no longer allows herself to be.

When it is rocket science

The first lie Srimathy Kesan did not believe was that one could not work in science after a bachelor's degree in commerce.

The second was that one could not be back in school for an MBA after a 16-year sabbatical.

The founder and CEO at Chennai-based aerospace startup Space Kidz India has managed the launch of more than 19 NSLV's (BalloonSats, which are cost-efficient reusable rockets), three suborbital payloads, and four orbital satellites in the past seven years.

It all started with a visit to the US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the European Space Agency in 2011.

"Witnessing a significant gap in private participation within the space industry in India further fuelled my determination," says Kesan.

In 2022, her company launched 'AzaadiSat', which contained 75 experiments constructed by 750 rural girls. The startup also holds the distinction of creating the world's smallest and lightest communication satellite -- Kalamsat.

"As a woman in science, securing funding is a formidable hurdle, with financial constraints often impeding progress and innovation," says Kesan.

There are setbacks, too, like the failure of the SSLV D1 rocket, which meant AzaadiSAT 1 satellite could not reach its orbit. Kesan says convincing backers to pump in capital for AzaadiSAT 2 was arduous.

Now, her firm has trained sights on what it calls Space Rickshaw, or 'Uber of space', where multiple stakeholders can send their payloads "enabling ride-share opportunities at economical rates".

Women at work

In Pune three decades ago, Asmita Sathaye was yet to file 50 Intellectual Property Rights documents, which would result in more than 10 global patents.

But it was then that she saw beyond the conventional use of polymers in furniture and envisioned its potential in the automotive industry.

Now as general manager, material science, at Tata Motors' engineering research centre, she looks after compliance, recyclability, circularity, and decarbonisation.

The company has 6,000 women technicians working on the shop floor, with the Pune plant managed by an all-woman team of 3,000.

Ola Electric's Tamil Nadu factory is currently run by 3,000 women and will employ 10,000 women at full scale, CEO Bhavish Aggarwal has said.

At the India sites of multinational online retailer Amazon, too, there are "many examples of women in tech who started their journey with Amazon as a software development engineer and grew to take manager and director roles," says Deepti Varma, vice-president-people experience and technology, Amazon Stores India, Japan and Emerging Markets.

Once hired, companies such as Amazon India, Tata Motors, Intuit, NatWest, Fiserv and JPMorgan Chase have internal communities and STEM-focused affinity groups that serve as hubs for learning and networking.

"We are seeing increased interest among women engineers to learn emerging technologies like Cloud, AI/ML, data science, product management and data analytics," says Vibhavari Jahagirdar, head, global technology for India and global co-head, post-trade technology, JPMorgan Chase. AI/ML stand for artificial intelligence and machine learning.

That's elementary

AI is transforming so many industries and areas of our life, and this cannot happen without women having a say, says Ivana Bartoletti, global chief privacy and AI governance officer, at information technology firm Wipro.

"I do not think AI will benefit the world if half of the population is not fully involved in it," she says.

Several companies have scholarship programmes for girl students pursuing tech and related fields.

Amazon Future Engineer Scholarships, launched in 2021, has reached more than 1.5 million students in more than 10,000 schools in India. This year, 68 students were selected for an early tech internship, says Varma.

"There is a need for visible female role models in science and tech-dominated fields," she adds.

One should probably look for them at the Republic Day parade.

IMAGE: A girl hold a model of an ISRO rocket during Republic Day celebrations at the Maulana Azad stadium in Jammu. Photograph: ANI Photo

Mapping the gap

Women account for a smaller share of students enrolled in and passing out of STEM (science, tech, engineering, mathematics) courses after the pandemic.

About 43.7 per cent of the STEM graduates in 2021-2022 (FY22) were women, compared to 45 per cent in the pre-Covid year of FY20, according to data from the All India Survey on Higher Education. FY22 is the latest year for which data is available.

This does not mean fewer women are graduating STEM courses in absolute numbers. More than 886,000 women passed their STEM courses in FY22, a 3.8 per cent increase from FY20. In the same period, however, total STEM graduates jumped by 6.6 per cent.

Women, however, accounted for about 41.2 per cent of all the grads enrolled in STEM courses in FY22, compared to 41.8 per cent in FY20. Female enrolments touched 42 per cent during the pandemic.

The share of STEM courses in overall enrolment and pass percentage has dropped.

Student enrolments in STEM shrunk from 29 per cent in FY20 to 26.6 per cent in FY22, while the share of STEM pass-outs in overall graduates fell from 29 per cent to 26 per cent.

Compiled by Samreen Wani

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

Swapnil Joglekar
Source: source image