Why didn’t you take up Arts?

Yesterday, a colleague had dropped in to my office. Not to discuss work, but to talk about this blog of mine. She had recently come across my blog and to my surprise, had actually gone through each one of them ! Over a cup of tea, she offered some comments and suggestions, and then out of the blue asked me, “Sudha, why did you study science? Why didn’t you take up Arts?”

That one question was enough to transport me back to January 1992, a time when I was doing my M.Sc. in Geology. The first semester results has just been declared then and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I had done very well. It was also the time to choose our optional subjects for the coming year. In my Department, a dissertation was an optional module in lieu of 4 papers, something that was preferred by most students. But since I was rather keen on a research experience, a dissertation it was for me, which meant that I had to find a teacher willing to guide me and supervise my work.

So off I went to Prof. A, who was a good teacher and seemed like someone who could be a good guide too. Prof. A first heard out my desire to do a dissertation and have him as my guide. Then he gave me a lecture on the rigours of field work, the dangers for a girl like me to be out in the field alone, how I would be better off opting for the 4 extra papers rather than doing research, how I had all the time in the world to do research, etc. He cited examples of women students who had left their research halfway unable to cope with field work and the problems it created later. He sent me off after telling me to think about what he had said.

I thought over it and next day, I went back to him more determined than ever before to do a dissertation. The same conversation ensued and this ping-pong game lasted for a few days till Prof. A burst out with impatience and irritation, ‘Why didn’t you take up Arts? Why Science and why Geology, in particular? Geology is not for girls.’ After ranting in a similar vein for some time, Prof. A finally refused to guide my dissertation.

Though very disappointed, I did not lose heart and approached the other professors in my department. All of them refused.

Their reason: My gender.

When I joined a B.Sc programme, it was with the intention to major in Zoology. But my very first undergraduate class in Geology was so inspiring and interesting that by the end of the class, I had decided that I would major in Geology. It was a good decision as I loved the subject and enjoyed every class, practicals and field trips that my undergraduate programme had to offer. I was also supported and encouraged a lot by my Geology teachers in college. So, when I completed my B.Sc in Geology, it was only natural and logical that I enroll for an M.Sc in Geology.

M.Sc was no less exciting or interesting. We were a class of just 19 students, including 6 women, and were treated by our professors as mature students. Our coursework was quite challenging, most of our teachers were good, and we got some exciting assignments to do. I had great friends from among my classmates and we studied, discussed and talked about our future in Geology together. Everything was perfect or so I thought.

Initially, I ignored the disparaging comments on women students that our professors would make very casually. I would also ignore the condescending way that some of the professors would respond to questions that I raised in class (Note: I was the only woman student who asked questions in class). I naïvely thought that by ignoring the comments,  the jibes would go away. It was only when my request for supervision for a dissertation was rejected, that I accepted and acknowledged the existence of overt and covert gender discrimination in the Department. My first reaction was bewilderment, which later turned to anger and humiliation when I discovered that my (male) friends and classmates had been accepted for supervision without any hesitation. (Note: None of the other women students in my class had opted for a dissertation. I eventually found a teacher willing to guide me for my dissertation, but that is another story and maybe another post.)

Geology is a field-based science and our coursework entailed some amount of mandatory field experience for us. In addition to this, some of our professors would organise informal, “by invitation only” (read only for men students) field excursions and discussions. This was when the extent of discrimination actually hit me and it served as a wake-up call to think about a future away from the Department, and maybe even a non-geological one. It was a painful, but practical thought, particularly if I wanted to earn a living and not continue living off my family.

As things unfolded, it was not a good time for anybody to be graduating with an M.Sc. Geology degree in the early 1990s. I wasn’t the only one whose future in the field looked bleak; all my other classmates struggled too to find jobs. Today, my batchmates are scattered across the software development industry, the armed forces, the insurance sector, construction industry, government, etc. I got a break in the publishing industry, though I must admit here that I did not choose this part of the communications industry consciously—it just happened by chance.

It has been a long journey since then, with unrealised dreams as a geologist giving way to discovering an editor within me. My innate common sense and practical nature helped me find a rhythm in my chosen field of work and today I cannot imagine myself doing something else ! That does not mean that I have abandoned Geology. Far from it. I keep myself updated with the latest developments and discoveries in the field. And my background in Geology adds that extra “something” to my travels. 😀

Never thought that, nearly 20 years later, the question “Why didn’t you take Arts?” would trigger off a chain of memories and emotions. Earlier, this question would have brought up anger, pain, hurt and maybe some tears. Today, only a bittersweet tinge lingers.

“Hey ! I asked you something,” my colleague’s voice broke into my memories. “Why didn’t you take up Arts?”

“That’s because I liked Science more,” I grinned back at her. “I still do.”

PS: You can find an earlier version of this post is here.

38 thoughts on “Why didn’t you take up Arts?

  1. Phew… If only I had a dime for everytime I was told Mechanical Engineeringis not for girls… I would have been a millionaire by now. 😦

    Alas…life is sooooooo full of discriminating events that sometimes you take discrimination for “granted”… Life’s sad that way, ain’t it?

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    1. In my case it was only the profs who would say that Geology was not for girls. As for most people, they would not even know what the subject was all about. They would usually confuse it with zoology or sometimes with archaeology !

      But yes, we do take a lot of discrimination for granted due to social conditioning. But thankfully, things are changing. Slowly, but surely.

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  2. I can say in retrospect that I am so glad you didn’t become a geologist too, because we would have missed such a wonderful writer and (shudder) I wouldn’t have met you 🙂 But I can understand and empathise with the indignation and the humiliation you had suffered. The discrimination which had started getting blunted at home in educated families still continued at educational institutions and workplaces in the 90s. Compared to your generation, ours had to fight even for a higher education! It is only now that discrimination is slowly reducing, thanks to the professionalism of the women, which brooks no nonsense.

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    1. In retrospect, everything looks ok and perfect. The intervening years gives one the insight to reflect and look ahead with a positive frame of mind. As for the writer part, who knows, I might have been churning out academic papers 😛
      But I think we would have met somehow 😀

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  3. It must have been very frustrating to face such discrimination Unfortunately, yours is not an isolated experience, Sudha. I have heard many stories like this. I’m glad that things seem to be changing for the better, even if they are changing slowly.

    To be fair, I have also heard the other side too. When my son was studying mechanical engineering, he used to tell me about some girls in his class who always refused to do the jobwork (which was mandatory) set for them. The professor would make the boys do the girls’ jobs because they (the girl students) were too ‘delicate’ to do them. 🙂

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    1. Oh definitely. Mine is not a one-off case and I know of friends who have faced similar issues. I also know of guys who took up literature and were promptly named “dandies” by their women classmates and teachers. As for the girls being “delicate to do stuff”, I had a couple of classmates who were like this.

      It was a frustrating time then, but I do believe that most things happen for the best and this was one of them. 🙂

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  4. That was truly shocking, Sudhagee. You remind me of a fairytale where this poor girl asks every horse on the land to take her to the land of Magic and is turned down. Eventually, a donkey does take her there where she ends up being the Queen! (What? Never heard of that story before? Never mind, I just made it!) 😀

    That said, the professors’ reaction showcases the disgustingly deep-rooted gender-bias in our country. I don’t know how far we have traveled in the ensuing two decades, but I hope they don’t have such blinkered views anymore. I agree to Zephyr’s theory too!

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    1. Psst… Umashankar, I love donkeys for their stubborness and attitude. 😀

      Things are definitely better now in Geology and in other traditionally male-dominated subjects. Though we have a long way to go before truly accepting that both sexes are equally capable given the same set of opportunities, support and encouragement.

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    1. This is a personal account, Seema. And yes, it was shocking at that time. But as I realised over time, I was not the only one facing discrimination, which exists across gender. Stereotypes and prejudices abound for both sexes and all of us are guilty of reinforcing it at some time or the other.

      But yes, times and people are changing.

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    1. I don’t think that gender bias will ever go away fully. But with more and more people realising and acknowledging the changing times, things are bound to get better 🙂

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  5. With me, it was the other way round, Sudha. I was told that it was better to take a course in the science stream, because it showed signs of superior intelligence. But since I was a girl after all, and hence, necessarily less intelligent,the Arts would do for me.But I was lucky it was at that day and age. Now, when I talk to my students in college, the amount of sneering disapproval of EVERY Art course is terrifying. Add to that the fact that most colleges are willing to admit Arts students with no more than 35% and you know how badly the Humanities and students who have “taken” humanities are being maligned. It is very sad, especially since we are so rapidly using ‘human’ skills now-a-days

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    1. When my teacher asked me this question, it was to say “girls are better off in arts”. When my colleague asked me this question it was with a sense of wonder that someone with a background in science could write on humanities without a background in it.

      The arts stream is seen as an escape route for everyone who cannot fit in the other streams. Even today, students are not encouraged to take up Arts for the sake of enjoying the subjects offered. I can understand your frustration at the scorn and derision that students of the Arts Stream and their teachers face.

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    1. Ultimately, teachers are also human beings and it is natural that they will come their set of prejudices and biases. Which is why such attitudes exist across disciplines/streams/subjects. While one stream or discipline may be prejudiced against women, I find that B.Eds are prejudiced against men.

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  6. I have no words and but fortunately I have not faced a similar situation in life. My parents and teacher have had very high expectations from me and I wish I could have done much better… Times are changing but I still think I got lucky, where my parents supported education, not just girl child education, good education is a right for every child and no one should be allowed to clip their wings. I am glad you followed your passion for geology no matter how difficult it was .. You are inspirational ..

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    1. Following your passion is what matters in the end ultimately. And yes, in my case that is what I have done and that is what I am doing. Thanks for your comments, Sangeeta.

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  7. I was secretly hoping for a ‘bravo’ moment somewhere along this post, when one of your professors would’ve accepted your dissertation and changed your course of life. I’m glad you made the best of what you had, and glad that things are a-changing for women today, albiet slowly.

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    1. One my professors did finally accept me as a student for a dissertation (I’ve mentioned that in the post), but with a lot of conditions, all of which I accepted as getting a research experience was the most important thing for me. It was a good experience, but by the time I finished my Masters I knew that I had no future in the field. I have no regrets today and I would still do Geology all over again if I had to go back in time.

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  8. Life is like this, isn’t it? Full of inequalities, judgmental behavior and prejudices which even the people who carry them are perhaps not aware of them. I recollect some humor which would irk me twenty years ago and now would be considered definitely gender-insensitive.
    Science has, for some reason been considered the preserve of men and yet, i think things are slowly and steadily changing. Your memory of the incident remaining so clear despite the years, is testament to the fact that discrimination leaves a mark, sometimes forever..

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    1. Science has been considered the preserve of men because of its association with intellect. And we women have a lack of it, don’t we ? 😛
      But Deepa, things are changing with more women entering streams traditionally dominated by women and vice versa. And why only discrimination, everything leaves a mark—the good, the bad and even the ugly. It is only what we take from these experiences ultimately defines you as a person.

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  9. I was told not to take engineering because I’d have probably required a payment seat and the concerned person who gave me that piece of advice said that to me because she thought the money would be better spent getting my brother the engineering degree so he may support the family. In retrospect I wish I had taken Arts. I’d have been better at it since I genuinely like literature and history. But it still stings that I wasn’t thought of as being good enough for engineering.

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  10. Strange how a casual question can transport us to some moment in the past! It happens to all of us, I guess. Anyhow, I am happy you are where you are today :), making the best of the opportunities that you got and overcoming the obstacles that came your way. A little more of this, a little less of that, I guess, like your blog name, is what life is about. 🙂

    PS: Reading your blog, I have often wondered myself. Why didn’t you take Arts? 😀

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    1. It happens all the time. It could be a question, a fleeting glimpse of a a face in the crowd, a photograph, a song, … anything can trigger some a memory from the past. The past is important as experiences gained then are important to live in the present. And yes, life is a little bit of this ad a little bit of that, and depending on your personality everything that lies in between, as well. 🙂

      As for your last question, Arts was never an option because I loved science. I still do in fact 😀

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  11. This was so interesting to read. My grandfather was a geologist and my grandmother went with him wherever he did field work. Infact, most of the stories she tells us are about her adventures like taking a walk in an area where a man-eater was spotted. Obviously, she enjoyed it as much as he did.

    On another note, i come from a family of ‘science people’. All PhDs or medical doctors. And i think we are all agreed that science or arts, they require creative, critical thinking. Which is what you need to write knowledgeably about the humanities or anything else. the other thing would be industry. So i am not surprised at all that you should be interested in Geology and write on the humanities. I think they complement each other pretty well.

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    1. My family is a mix of Science and Arts. The boys were pushed into science and the girls were not so subtly encouraged to take up Arts. My parents were different—they just wanted us to make the best of the opportunities available to us. I was the first girl in my family to study Science and from my generation remain the only one to have done so.

      I quite agree with the part of critical thinking which is necessary for any field. I would also like to add here that the rigour that I received as part of my education in science has stood me in good stead while I work in the field of humanities. On the other hand, my work and teaching students writing skills has helped me understand science ever so much better. Both feed into and complement each other beautifully. I have no regrets about what I studied and what I am doing now. As I see it, I have had the best of both worlds. 🙂

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  12. It was different with me .. I was forced into an option called ‘Science’ because I was good at maths and taking up science gave you the extra right was posing as a genious al the time .. but today I am happy as to whatever happened because I wouldnt have been able to discover what I am good at without knowing what I am bad at 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Poorvi. In retrospect, everything seems fine as due to my varied interests, I have the best of both worlds. But I know people who are bitter or unhappy that they were forced to or persuaded into doing something they didn’t want to do, even if they may have had an aptitude for the subject. I’m glad that you, too, it has turned out positively for you. 😀

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  13. This was a disheartening read. I seriously hope things have changed now, though.
    It was an enlightening post for me, because I’ve never been exposed to discrimination in the educational sector, as far as I can remember.
    You are a wonderful writer, Sudha. I’m glad you discovered the editor within yourself, and that I discovered you. 🙂

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