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They dreamt to be scientists: India's pioneering women

Sunday January 06, 2013 07:40:28 PM, Richa Sharma, IANS

Kolkata: Masquerading as a boy to get admitted to school or being rejected by the community for staying in a Muslim family's house to write her exams - they bravely fought all odds decades ago to pursue their science dream and are now top women scientists in the country. They will be the role models for thousands of girls keen to pursue a career in science.

The stories of 21 pioneering women scientists have been woven together in a book, "The Balancing Act", by the union Ministry of Science and Technology to inspire girls to take up science as a career.

The book was released by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the inaugural session of the centenary of the Indian Science Congress in the presence of President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"This book is to introduce young girls to many early pioneering women scientists in India. This book is about stories of their life and work," said Vinita Sharma, head of the Science for Equity, Empowerment and Development (SEED) division, Department of Science and Technology.

"The aim is to inspire young students to pursue careers in science," Sharma told IANS.

The initiative holds importance as the government had expressed concern over stark gender disparity at the level of senior scientific positions in India. Women scientists form a mere 15 percent of the full-time research and development professionals, said the government.

According to the book, one of the pioneer women scientists, Rajinder Jeet Hans-Gill, who retired as mathematics professor from Punjab University, had to dress up as a boy by tying a turban and wearing shorts so that she could join the boy's school, as there was no school for girls in Nawashahr district of Punjab in the early 1950s.

She graduated in mathematics from a boy's college.

Rama Govindaraj, an Indian Institute of technology (IIT) alumnus, was not allowed to enter the premises of a chemical company for a training programme as she was a woman.

"I was told that a certificate would be given to me and there is no need to attend the training as I was the only woman among so many men and was given an excuse that i don't have appropriate clothes. I asserted and told them that I could handle and wear whatever was appropriate and wore the only pair of jeans I have throughout the month-long training," Govindaraj said.

Manju Ray, a enzymologist at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata, had to struggle to educate herself while living in a small village in what is now Bangladesh.

During her Class 10 examination, she had to stay with a Muslim family to avoid 8-9 hours of travel to school. She and her family was rejected by the community for this.

All the 21 women have inspiring stories about their struggle, perseverance, courage and success.

The book has been written by SPARROW - a trust set up in 1988 in Mumbai to build a national archives for women with print, oral history and pictorial material.

"The book is for young people eager to know who their foremothers in science are in India. There have been many extraordinary women scientists in India from early 20th century onwards," said SPARROW director C.S. Lakshmi.

"It talks about why they took up science. What was their childhood like? Was their family supportive? What was their contribution to science? What problems did they face? How did they deal with their problems," said Lakshmi.

According to the writers, the book is not exactly a book of answers but one that relates the stories of women scientists whose life experiences and passion for science provide answers to many questions.

The book is for those young girls who want to break stereotype images and knock at the doors of science with determination and courage.

"It is a path less travelled but nevertheless, a path already laid out by several others," Lakshmi said.

(Richa Sharma can be contacted at


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