Lessons From A Twenty-five Year Career As Woman In Science
February 20, 2021
tabets and capsules Ranjani Rao

Last month during a one-on-one discussion with my current boss in Singapore, he asked me what I needed in order to continue performing at my current level.

“Flexibility,” I replied. 

The minute I said it, I was transported back in time to the day of my first annual appraisal at my job at a pharmaceutical company in California. At the end of a year marked by a cross-country move from Maryland, the birth of my child (a full-term pregnancy after two miscarriages) and an eight-week maternity leave, I had made significant contributions. All I needed to continue working was ‘flexibility”.

Two conversations in two different countries that occured twenty-five years apart, had drawn the same response from me. Was this cause for celebration or concern?

The world changed but not for women in science

The world has changed drastically since my entry into the workforce in the late nineties. Personal connections and word of mouth recommendations have been replaced by social networks and online reviews. Interviews and jobs are completed virtually. Mentoring and networking accomplished via text and videocalls. But the one thing that has remained the same is the gender gap in STEM.

Studies show that the gender gap is not an artefact. It affects women all over the world, because the factors responsible for gender-specific bias and stereotyping, pay disparity, and discrimination in male-dominated fields are not limited to one country. Despite a call from the UN to the global community to end this imbalance by declaring February 11th as International Day of Women and Girls in Science, women are still unable to participate fully.

Women scientists and entrepreneurs now win more awards and often grace covers of business magazines. Not long ago, the popular show Big Bang Theory depicted two female lead characters as scientists. Yet, in the same period, I came across a tweet in which Flavia Tata-Nardini, co-founder of Fleetspace Technologies is standing behind a podium with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side because she didn’t have a babysitter and wanted to honor her commitment to speak to high school students about women in STEM.

In my own career spanning twenty-five years, I have been employed at multinational companies, and research institutes, and for a while, chose to be as an independent consultant. I have worked for an equal number of years in America, India and Singapore, with colleagues, clients and supervisors from different countries and work cultures. 

During these years I have encountered multiple life changes including motherhood, divorce, displacement, bereavement and health problems. None of these made me drop out of the workforce. But each of these demanded a sacrifice. A major or minor resetting of my ambitions and expectations. 

Whether it was scaling back my hours, changing my job role or finding an innovative way to meet my personal and professional needs, I had to think deeply, choose wisely, and be flexible.

A request for flexibility should not be seen as asking for a favor

The same flexibility that would have made my life easier, had it been part of my employment offer.

Each time I ask for flexibility, it makes me feel like I am asking for a favor. Whenever an employer interested in retaining me for my intellectual ability and proven track record, asks me what I need, I feel seen. I also feel disappointed. 

When I bring myself to work each day, I do not (and cannot) separate the side of my life that includes family, my interests and other aspects that make me whole and my life worthwhile. I am more than the facts revealed on my resume. I am a composite package that consists of my scientific side and my human side. I need both to function together and not be at odds with each other. 

Flexibility should be part of an employee’s compensation package, much like insurance and paid time off. 

Hasn’t the pandemic taught us that for employees to be productive, all aspects of their life need to be factored in and accommodated? Whether it’s child care or parent care, space constraints or health concerns, an employee can only be productive when seen as a complete individual.

When I speak to young women considering careers in science, I tell them about my struggles across decades and countries. Do your best work. Know your worth. Be assertive. Ask for what you need. 

My hope is that they will do all that. And reach great heights. And when they get there, I hope they will use their influence to shape policy that makes flexibility an inalienable right and not a personal favor.

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