My father just returned from a short trip to Chennai. Dad had the opportunity to meet a lot of people this time and, as curious Indian uncles and aunties are wont to do, a number of them asked him what his kids do in the United States. That his daughter is a geophysicist who works on highly technical, multi-million-dollar oil exploration projects at a multinational firm was often met with a mix of awe and incredulity. “You know, because the concept is alien to many of them.” The concept here being a brown Indian woman in a male-dominated profession in a male-dominated company in a foreign land. What made jaws drop more was Dad’s explanation that I was always adventurous and that my progressive mother and he encouraged it. Quel scandale.
A few thoughts:
1) He was talking to educated folks in a country that values education. You have to know what a geophysicist is before you can display the requisite amazement and discomfiture at a career woman version thereof, amirite? Jokes aside, this is the same society that proudly prints hard-won tertiary degrees on the wedding invites of their female children while the number of Indian women with great power and responsibility only increases. Yet, as these kanchipuram-clad ladies who famously placed a spacecraft in Mars orbit will attest, “female scientists who make it in their fields do so despite massive resistance, often from their own mentors and colleagues.” And families and communities that want them to be educated, but only so much.
2) Forget geophysics and ladder climbing when you lack basic agency, the most fundamental dominion over your own body in your country. India just banned the showing of the documentary on the 2012 gang rape and murder of Jyoti “Nirbhaya” Singh, while the state of Maharashtra made illegal beef slaughter and consumption. Beef eating = bad, misogyny and sticking head in sand over India’s rape problem = good. The safety and autonomy of a cow are more important than that of a woman.
3) Things are only slightly better on this landmass. Female physicists and engineers are a minority in Houston, and I’ve received many a “You’re a geophysicist?” look at my favorite restaurant down the road. In many states, rabid dogs and feral cats enjoy more compassion than black people and women, and do not get me started on “legitimate rape.”
This is why the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Women’s Network and similar groups that highlight the issues of working women and offer support and mentoring are critical. Quite often, it’s not about how women get a seat at the table and grow, but having to explain our very existence and capability.
Incidentally, Nirbhaya means “without fear.” A world without fear. Me of you. You of me.