Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Fidèle Féministe

Bleary eyed in the wake of dawn, actually just the eve of noon, I see some frantic attempts to contact me on my cell phone. Half-asleep and a tooth-brush in one hand, I call up my best friend to ask what the matter was. He was half-amused at my sleepy tone and half-annoyed he had to call me so much. Then he told me that 5 members of the ACM team had to go to IIT-Madras tomorrow. It was an ACM-Women event and as there are exactly five girls in the ACM team, everyone was waiting for my confirmation. I was in a state of resistance simply at the fact that I was enjoying a nice day off and had to wake up early the next day.  When you have a job in hand and are in the final semester, the tendrils of complacency tend to sneak their way into you and I washed them off and said yes. I thought I had nothing better to do that particular day and might as well see what's in store. I wasn't very excited because it involved a lot of planning and I was even less excited at the though I may be chaperoning the juniors who were to accompany me.

How very wrong I was!*

IIT-Madras is basically built in the middle of a forest, you'll see stags crossing the road and what not. It's also very huge and easy to get lost. I had done some research on the event and my feminist soul already had a few misgivings at the thought of an exclusive ACM-W event. Nevertheless, I was prepared to go to the venue, IC and SR auditorium. The event began at 9 am. The five us settled in the cozy air-conditioned auditorium at the back. So I thought this is going to be a nice girls hangout, already I began chatting with them and everything was warm and fun.

The first person to give their presentation was Ms. Reyyan Ayfer.

She came up on stage and she is obviously at ease and comfort and she squeals "Oh, I'm short!". As a person who values the 3 inches over the 5 feet mark, I could very well connect with her. She gave a talk about the ACM-W student chapter, how the first meeting was held on 12/12/12, how they wanted to bring awareness and create more ACM-W chapters to bring about a healthier gender diversity ratio for Computer Engineers. She said she knew what minority meant as she was in a family where her husband and her two grown sons were engineers and she was the only female. Gender-diversity at Chennai colleges are quite 50-50 but even then there is an unsettling feeling of minority that I had experienced from school.

Next on stage was Ms. Wendy Hall. 

She was so bubbly and fun!
Now she wanted to try something different, apart from just talking about ACM - W. She wanted to take us on a journey travelling back in time and experience her major milestones and hurdles in her path right from her first baby steps. Her parents had lived during the World War and she belonged to the "Baby Boomer" era where her parents strove to give the best in life. As an avid historian, my instant connect with someone who is culturally different but having read their history, it made me feel, "Oh, ya I know where she's coming from!". I won't know exactly how it feels but I had a fair idea. And she began.

And the rest is history.

To take that half century journey was mind-blowing. From math to computers, from Tim Berners Lee to hyertext, from multimedia to semantic web, the story was mesmerising. As she displayed the skewed gender ratio, I thought this representation problem is truly global. She mentioned lot of tales, the gender ratio in Qatar and so on. But what really piqued my interest was when she explained the process that took place when she became a member of the Royal Society of London, signing the same book which had been signed centuries ago by Newton! That's like... wow!!! She mentioned a lot of things, about how women got the right to something as fundamental as a vote only a century ago. The talk really did stir up those pangs of feminism that are always resident in the background somewhere.

There was question and answer session and I was itching to ask a question. Only problem is I have this stage fear, my heart starts pounding and my mouth goes dry even though I have spoken on countless occasions. A new audience is a new challenge and by the time I could muster the courage to ask a question, the time was up and we were asked to take a break for tea.

At tea, I asked my HOD to introduce us so that we can take a picture with them and I finally mustered the courage to ask Ms. Wendy Hall the question. I told her how I found it odd that the main ACM event has no women and all the women are here. Doesn't it give a subtle image that famous professionals are male? And she was surprised and agreed with me pronto and held my shoulders and said "Men just don't get it! Are you brave enough to ask that?". Now this was another mind-blowing experience. Not only did she echo my sentiments, but she really like the fact I asked it and encouraged me too. Again, the wonderful connect I felt even though culturally, geographically we were separated, at that moment we just two women who had experienced being a minority, who understood that women should not be selected simply by virtue of the fact they are women but simply that even the deserving women are not getting fair representation as the interest is not there to involve them, or that it is a new experience to invite women or because women are changing too fast for the scientific community to adapt.

So I walk in with more confidence. The next speaker was Ms. Sophie Vandebroek, chief technology officer of Xerox. She introduced us to the many many interesting technical problems that Xerox has addressed, variable pricing as an example, dispelling theories of the lone synonym for photocopy. Xerox is actually gearing itself to a paperless future and she gave a compelling talk about the principles, the innovation, the sheer quality of technical expertise they take, nurture, support and harness. Yet again, as fascinating as this was, what drew me was, of course, her life story, as a single mom with three kids. She said with a twinkle, managers let you get away with nursing your child at the meeting if your efficiency is indispensable. And by God, the way she walked,so confident and erect, like a woman who was running the show and more importantly a woman who knew she was running the show. It was charisma par anything I had seen. Then, she shows a family photo and am wondering, are they her cousins and she says those grown people are her children! Two sons and a daughter if I remember right. As I was in the very last row, I could not make out the few lines in her face but her agility and bearing gave me an impression of a far more energetic and young woman.

After that was a technical talk on classifications that may be used for applications such as biometrics by a professor in IIT, and an old student of the same. She emphasised the need for more girls to take up IIT. As a student who did not make it to those hallowed halls, it hardened my resolve to conduct a coaching class to give girls the confidence to tackle the IIT-JEE head on and  with self-belief.

Then, post lunch we had a panel discussion. As a feminist, this session, further post-lunch, was quite old talk, arguments about . I had heard all these stories before. Once again, it was not the issue but their life stories, struggles and triumphs that struck a chord. Indeed, they were inspiring people, Ms. Rashmi Mohan from Yahoo, the youngest, mother of two daughters, Anupama, one of the directors at IBM who had grown from a traditional roots to a bold outlook, Meenakshi, a hard-core academic, again juggling kids and work, Akila, a corporate representative who unfortunately  chaired the discussion and could not give much insight into her own life story, Gayatri, the senior most corporate member, adventurous and always travelling. Each person gave so many little anecdotes that I cannot honestly quote. Recurring themes were resilience, spirit, determination, motherhood and dedication.


Please do visit this site to see their exhaustive achievements. For the mountain of achievements, they were all very down-to-earth. The question and answer session was back. However I couldn't see Ms. Wendy Hall who said she'd back me up. My friend was whispering proper ways of framing it and my throat was still rasping. I asked the question and they said all the wonderful women are here today and the organisers said we'll include women. I thought my question was dealt with rather quickly and was feeling miffed. I wanted to know what everyone felt about it. So that tea break, I went around talking. I met Anupama and she said we were losing out statistically because there were very few women in top corporate society. I was not personally convinced because quality will speak out but I guess the statistics is over-whelming. Then I met Rashmi and she said that was a fantabulous question and my spirits started to rise again. After that I met Ms. Sophie Vanderbroek and she was excited by the question too and I was pouring out my enthusiasm and admiration of her talk and promised her I will write good stuff about Xerox. I'm sure I've at least established the quality of people at Xerox. Last I met Ms. Reyyan Ayfer, who was very excited about the whole blogging scenario and then asked me so many questions about my culture that enthralled me.

The ACM-W event wrapped up by then and the lecture by the legendary Vint Cerf followed. As I let the events of the day seep, I realised that so many cultures, languages, lifestyles apart, so many women, all over the world feel the way I do. I call them loyal femisists, Fidèle Féministe, by virtue of their work and committment and their eagerness to reach out to like minded women.

The journey I have charted out for myself is no doubt going to be rigorous but there has been a re-kindling of hope in my soul. This event helped me find an inner strength and sense of logic that I had allowed to be dormant and I thank everyone from the organisers, my HOD, the speakers and my best friend for waking me up that Wednesday Morning on January 24 2013.

*taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone


  1. That was a well captured snapshot through the lens of an aspiring women professional. Keep up the great job and your spirits too to achieve unformiddable heights like the exceptional women you met at ACM-W

    Chithralekha, Xerox Research Center India

    1. Thank you so much, yes I remember meeting you at the event too and am honoured by your comment on my blog post. You are also one of the inspiring role models and I thank you once more for your time.