Admirable women-in-technology: Ada Lovelace Day 2009

Today is Ada Lovelace Day 2009, an international day to celebrate women excelling in technology. “Who was Ada?”, you may well ask. The answer is here.

I signed a pledge to write today about a woman – or women –  in technology that I admire. I interpret the brief loosely. I believe technology is not possible  without science, and the benefits of science and technology would not reach many without individual enterprise and leadership.

This pledge post particularly draws attention to the leadership of Indian women in science and technology.

When I was a girl growing up in India, an early text book introduced me to Madame Curie but not to any Indian woman scientist. In my extended family, there were several female cousins who were doctors, but only male cousins seemed to be engineers or scientists. Indeed one of those male cousins – and a chapter in my Hindi text book in Year 4 of school – inspired me to study engineering. But when I was a student of engineering, we had only one woman teacher.

Outside too, every once in a while a brilliant mathematical mind, such as Shakuntala Devi or Mangala Narlikar, would be mentioned in the press but these were the exceptions rather than commonplace appearances. Indeed while Mangala Narlikar’s husband Jayant has an entry on Wikipedia, she herself gets few mentions!

Women are under-represented and not very visible as scientists and technologists.

Women are under-represented in science and technology in India, as they are everywhere else. They are also not very visible. A recent book titled ‘Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India‘ attempts to change that.

Why Lilavati’s daughters? Lilavati was the daughter of renowned Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhāskara II (1114-1185 A.D.). In his treatise on arithmetics, Lilavati, named after his intelligent daughter, he proposed the modern mathematical convention that when a finite number is divided by zero, the result is infinity.

India still confounds many through its selective modernity. But worth celebrating are both quiet determination and bold leadership in women who on first glance may appear traditional. In particular, I want to pay tribute to two inspiring women who bring the wonders of science and technology to the public, combining their love of science and technology with their leadership and enterprise.

On Ada Lovelace Day 2009, I pay tribute to Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Neelam Dhawan, two of India’s admirable women leaders, in technology areas in which I work.

Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is India’s leading biotechnology entrepreneur, and the founder of Biocon Limited in Bangalore. Although she trained as a master brewer, she has built Biocon as a healthcare focused company, which is driven by original research. The company is the world’s 7th largest biotechnology employer.

She is also a vociferous, if not always popular, civic activist who is an advocate for better municipal governance in her home town. Personally, her ability to keep alive her wider interests, beyond just work, interests me greatly because I believe that a well-lived life is a well-rounded life. She is not known to be a wall-flower and I admire her for living life on her own terms.

Neelam Dhawan is my other choice of an aspiring technology industry leader in India. As it happens, I knew her when I first joined HCL in India in 1994. She was then the head of marketing in HCL-HP, a joint venture between HCL and Hewlett-Packard. She was on my very first performance review panel where I experienced her firm-with-fair and direct way of managing people. Her team – all young male professionals – respected her immensely. But above all, they liked her. She neither put up with unreasonable demands nor subjected her team to them.

Although I had no reporting relationship with her, there was no template in HCL then for a high-achieving female manager. Apart from Neelam. I benefited greatly from several short and long conversations with her, on various matters related to professional growth and conduct. She was amazingly calm and had a great sense of humour, and a perfect mentor.

Neelam is now the head of HP in India. Her commitment to customers, change and innovation – for which HCL gives its employees plenty of practice – continues to stand her in good stead. She is especially inspiring because she has balanced her career with a marriage and bringing up her children. Perhaps Sylvia Ann Hewlett would like to interview her next to unlock some of the secrets!

Who are the women scientists and technologists you admire? If you haven’t acknowledged their influence on you publicly, today’s is a good day! (Please tag the posts ‘ALD09post‘ so others can find your contribution too, thanks.)

Related reading:

A review of a translated version of ‘Lilavati’ can be found here (PDF).

My review of Dick Teresi’s ‘Lost Discoveries: The Multicultural Roots of Modern Science from the Babylonians to the Maya’.

6 Replies to “Admirable women-in-technology: Ada Lovelace Day 2009”

  1. A lot of women have been eminently successful in the field of science. However, their talents have not been showcased well enough.

    One is Jane Goodall, with her monumental research on chimpanzees. Another is Rosalind Franklin. Although she lived only thirty eight years,her research in the field of DNA was phenomenal.

    As our world evolves, we need to provide more and more encouragement to women so that they can do value addition to the best of their potential.

    @Milind: Thanks for your note. Indeed Ada Lovelace Day is about celebrating both well-known and lesser known women in S&T and their contributions to their chosen fields.

    I agree we need to encourage more girls to read and stay with science and technology in their careers; celebrating the achievements of those before them provides them with templates and role models too.

  2. Well, I missed the deadline, didn’t I?

    I too grew up admiring Shakuntala Devi (thanks to all those shows), Madam Curie (textbooks). Mangla, by her own admission and choice, was not active or ambitious. Perhaps that’s the reason we dont find more about her.

    I have admired Kiran too, though I have never known about Neelam Dhawan. Thanks for informative post. 🙂

    @Poonam: Thanks for your note. There is always the next year!

    I am glad you now know about Neelam Dhawan. I chose to celebrate women in technology-led businesses because I believe science and technology should seek to improve human life. Profit-making businesses and non-profits both make it possible.

  3. I read your post with interest. Thank you for highlighting active women in the field of science. I was a student of Mrs. Mangala (Rajwade) Narlikar when she was a tutor of Maths in Ruia College, Mumbai. I was present when her interview was taken by Granthalee, a booklovers’ organisation in Mumbai recently. She was the same Mangala Madam seen 45 years before. Thank you for your post again. I may translate some of its contents and send to one Marathi weekly in Pune, if you permit. Regards.
    Mangesh Nabar.

    @MangeshNabar: Thanks for your note. Good to hear you have known Mrs Narlikar.

    If you wish to use the content of this post for publication, please use it with attribution, please identify the source (my blog) and the author (me) and then please do let me know where it has been published and if possible, leave a web link here. Thanks.

  4. It is relevant to mention that there are actually a significant number of women scientists in India and Indian women in Asia who work in corporate R&D and hence, are somewhat invisible. For every Dr Shaw, there are middle management women scientists. I am also one, a Ph.D in Math, and work in one of the largest corporate global R&D. I recently transferred out of our India office to our global R&D office in Shanghai and noticed a key difference – In China, we are now more than 60% representation! It is incredibly liberating and one of socialism’s (few?) positives. In India, I did notice that everytime I went to a national lab for some contractual projects, the women scientists looked sad and oppressed by a smooth talking suited male scientist who worked the group, cutting off some women scientists mid sentence during lab tours or project discussions. Not nice.

  5. I too remember growing up and listening to the wizardary of Shakuntla Devi from my Mom and reading about Madame Curie’s Radium in the texts. Otherwise no other mention of women in technology anywhere. One problem is that girls are assumed to loath maths and sciences at not-so-well privileged schools of masses…and that results in their heavy predisposition not to ‘become good’ in it…not to stop rote learning it.
    Encouraging post, thanks.
    Incidently I too wrote about something feminist in my last post…but an obliquely different take 🙂

  6. Great thinking. Actually today this thinking is changing. Women are being equally getting motivated for engineering fields from their parents and other relatives. Though in my class female students are only 10% of the class strength. The Indian women usually go for pure sciences and art stream though being equally talented.

    This could be result of the old Indian belief that women should not opt for the hard working areas at-least not where there is physical work involved, they are god for mental works like being a teacher or a scientist instead of going for engineering fields specially the civil branch. 40% of the girls in our engineering college are going for computer science and engineering, so it shows about our mentality.

    Women participation in Army is quite low when compared to the other big countries. Here is what our minister had to say about that: “Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has publicly said that the members of the fair sex are being encouraged to join the defence services in large numbers. He also said that as of now, no view has been taken at the “decision-making” level on the issue of creating the post of combined Defence Services.”

    After this sort of comment how Indian women would feel comfortable to join the Indian Army, this is total discrimination and would have hurt the sentiments of many people. If it would have been so, why the other countries like U.S.A. have recruited women in high numbers in good ranks. The women in Indian army can not rise above the ranks of Major.
    [need of women in the army- http://www.ehow.com/about_4894698_army-jobs-women.html ]
    women in combat-http://www.military.com/opinion/0,15202,163773,00.html

What do YOU think?