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’.

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