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.