Gender Bias: Perspectives from an Indian researcher abroad, excelling in STEM - Interview with Nikita Hari

Published: Jun 26, 2017 By

Nikita Hari - SmallIn the final article in our series exploring gender bias, we take an international perspective and talk to Indian-born Nikita Hari, entrepreneur and PhD student in the field of electrical engineering. She compares and contrasts her experiences as a researcher in a traditionally male-dominated field, including social aspects, moving from her native India to the UK.

Introduction

Nikita Hari is currently a doctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. She describes herself as a ‘scientist, social entrepreneur, STEM ambassador and science communicator.’ Hari grew up in the large coastal city of Kozhikode in Kerala — a southern state of India. Kerala boasts the highest literacy rate of any state in India at 94%, according to the most recent census, and also tops the table for female literacy (92%).

She moved to Cambridge in 2013 to pursue her PhD, and has since been actively engaged as an advocate for women in STEM. She co-founded two social enterprises in 2016, with applications back in India.

What do your current business roles and research involve?

We’re at the crossroads of spiralling energy demands, whilst requiring environmental pollution control. Each and every electrical device requires the conversion of electricity, available from a wall outlet to power it. These converters are conventionally made of silicon — something that’s been around for 60 years, but it’s not meeting the challenging demands of our times. My research, at the University of Cambridge, is looking into alternatives like gallium nitride (GaN), that have the potential to rise up to the challenging demands of our times and provide lighter, cheaper and faster power conversion.

Additionally, I have co-founded two social tech enterprises — Favelley and Wudi, where I work as a work as Chief Operations Officer (COO) and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). The former, Favelley aims to turn slums into the next silicon valleys by engaging, training and matching marginalised youth to coding jobs. It was co-founded alongside three other Cambridge PhD scholars Paulo, Stefano and Martin, and is in pilot mode in India right now. I’m dedicated to it at least two days a week.

Wudi Datatech Solutions Pvt Ltd is an Artificial Intelligence-based software solutions enterprise, I co-founded with my brother, Arjun Hari. Edu-WUDI is our flagship free product, aimed at disrupting the educational system for a better tomorrow. Our product is designed to extract data from an existing school environment to derive meaningful connections and co-relations using Artificial Intelligence. These connections enable our system to identify an individual’s skills, interests and behaviour, so that precise focus can be given to the right career for them and skill development.

At present I feel in India, no focus is being given to an individual’s interest for their career, but rather, a focus is imposed on them. Students are often pressurised to go into a medical, engineering, or a management career in India, so the idea is to help them look at other possibilities. The forced focus approach, eventually leads to mounting pressures, discontent and an unending struggle to fit in. We hope to transform the educational space in India. I feel that as an aspiring poet, you should be judged for your literary skills, rather than your skills in geometry.

I’ve also been involved with CamAWISE since 2014 as a steering committee member. A group of working women in Science, Engineering and Technology, and postgraduate students. We are a platform to allow women to share their views and opinions, to help them feel part of a team and give them a sense of belonging. We also work in collaboration with different companies and organisations to organise STEM events. Because I come from a background where there are very few women, I feel it is very important to have this platform.

 

So, having been a great fan of Dickens, arriving at Cambridge seemed like walking in history. But the romanticism didn’t last long. It was a big cultural shock in every way...I had a steep learning curve.

 

How did you find the transition of moving from your native Kerala, India, to Cambridge in the UK, as a researcher?

So, having been a great fan of Dickens, arriving at Cambridge seemed like walking in history. But the romanticism didn’t last long. It was a big cultural shock in every way — from how people used simple pleasantries while addressing you to emailing habits. I had a steep learning curve and it took 2 years for me to feel completely at ease.

Professionally, there are a lot of similarities between India and UK, but there is a share of good and bad things in both cultures. I had to learn many things the hard way!

I’ve come from a conventional set up and background. I found it hard to break the glass ceiling and move up the career ladder in India. When I decided to come to Cambridge to study, I received many comments through my parents. Family friends said that they were shocked that I was not married and going overseas, remarking, ‘Who will marry her now? Have you seen any Keralans going to Cambridge?’ I was also seen as setting a bad precedent in the family, as I was the oldest of my siblings.

I wasn’t expecting so much interest into my personal life here in the UK though. But shockingly enough, here too people are curious about it! As a woman PhD scholar in electrical engineering, I’m often during invited to talk at for Girl Power conferences. Here, young girls ask about whether I have a partner and have told me that they think my single status is the reason for my success. Also, they mention they were advised against choosing STEM subjects as being incompatible with a family life.

I must admit an additional surprise I had when I came to the UK was to see statistics showing that women constitute only 9% of individuals in engineering. I thought it would be much higher. I recall comments from the time when I arrived in the UK and I mentioned my PhD research — people often stated things like ‘you’re in a man’s world’, or — ‘you must be brilliant if you’re female and got into that field.’

In modern day India, a lot of people see electrical engineering as a good career, and there are quite a few women studying it. As a result, those comments aren’t made. Although, in my home town, people expect girls to get married and raise a family after 22 years of age. This is seen as normal, and I was seen as one of the exceptional cases breaking the traditions.

India has a fixation with marriage, but Indian women have become Presidents, Prime Ministers and have outdone men in all areas from the army to athletics. However, there are also those women that have been stopped forcefully from pursuing their dreams, due to patriarchal culture dominating their every day lives.

 

I’ve come from a conventional set up and background. I found it hard to break the glass ceiling and move up the career ladder in India.…I must admit that I was extremely surprised when I came to the UK to see statistics showing that women constitute only 9% of individuals in engineering.

 

You mention there is a stark lack of women in your research field in the UK, what do you think are the underlying reasons for this?

If you look at the PhD students there are a lot of females. But none of them are climbing the ladder. I think it’s a psychological struggle and some women may feel that they don't want to be in an environment filled with men. If you need to deal with men in positions of power, you need to have confidence to deal with challenging situations. For example, once I was having a conversation with a male senior academic and mentioned I was interviewing for postgraduate candidates, for a position in the department. He said ‘Oh, I’m doing that interviewing too and how come you are being asked to do it? I don’t have anything personal against you but I’m sure your college standards must be low.’

What advice would you give to women who have to deal with comments like that?

I personally make it clear that I am annoyed if I feel a comment is out of context in the conversation. Otherwise, I smile to try and not spoil the mood. Your response should be thought about and fit into the particular atmosphere.

Research [1,2] has shown that men and women have differences in approach to work. Also, that the system equates traditionally male characteristics with leadership. How do you think things can progress in the future to overcome bias?

I think women need to understand the psychology of men. Men are inclined to put themselves forward and as a result, we think they are confident, even if they haven't thought something through. Where as women tend to analyse opportunities. For example, if women look at a job listing they will look at all the skill sets required and may think, that since they haven't got all of them, they won’t apply. Where as a man will apply, even if they have only two or three of them.

I think there are many characteristics that are very different between the genders. Both sides need to take some time to realise how the other side thinks, do some ground work. Men should acknowledge that women are very thoughtful and reluctant to put forward their opinion, so they need encouragement from senior management.

Additionally, I’ve seen examples of men that are critical of women that are opinionated, when they wouldn't be of men. When they do hire women, they opt for personalities that they find easier to control. In fact, they should hire impassioned, strong women and not feel threatened by them. They need to understand, it is not a lack of brilliance that is stopping women putting themselves forward, it is the sympathy, empathy characteristics they’ve developed and also family relationships, including having children that they have to take into consideration.

I find often women that are very capable are lacking in confidence. We need to learn to put ourselves forward and I think that gender bias can play a part in preventing that, as you expect to be shut down. Even I have to keep telling myself that it’s fine to be surrounded by men. Yes there has been improvements, but they have been slow. There is only one female lecturer in electrical engineering. There are 50-60 academics so it’s a tragically low ratio. I can see a lot of new appointments and none of them are women.

 

Both sides need to put time and effort into understanding each other. This should all be supported by policy, otherwise things are not going to happen and things continue in a stalemate.

 

Both sides need to put time and effort into understanding each other. This should all be supported by policy, otherwise things are not going to happen and things continue in a stalemate.

Do you think a difference in networking styles of men and women influences success?

I think women would like to have some more background before they talk to someone. Even I would be reluctant to approach someone sometimes, as people in authority can be very rude or aggressive. In my experience, I’ve seen that the problem is the other way round. Men have a problem networking with women. Even if you are smiling and saying stuff and you are in a conference with 600 hundred people, I’ve seen that they just look away or they are just uncomfortable. Men also need to work on that. Engagement is a 50-50 thing, so if men aren't pro-active it wont work.

What is the status of women in science Kerala?

In Kerala, being the only 100% literate state in India, women enjoy a high educational status. However, it’s a state wrapped in certain traditions, where conventionally women are not expected to explore horizons outside India for education. So within Kerala, women do get educated and work in different professions of their choice. But at the end of the day, however good they are at what they do, they are expected to marry at a certain age and raise a family and fit in societal rules that they are forced to abide to.

What would you say are the main differences you see in research in India and England?

Research in India and the UK are very similar, except that the UK has better resources and facilities. Being in Cambridge gives me an exceptionally big international platform to engage with the brightest minds of the world, and to broaden my horizons. But as mentioned, I find a very poor representation of women in engineering in the UK, especially electrical engineering. As I understand it, there is a huge cultural barrier here, which prevents girls from choosing science fields.

What do you feel are the main barriers to success in STEM for women?

STEM is a demanding and challenging field. For example, I have to work in the lab at odd hours so it can be hard if you have a family. There are people that spend their life at work. It isn't very work-life balance friendly. You can’t work remotely, you have to be in the lab itself. There’s less flexibility and it can be a very draining process. I think also, an existing subconscious bias, that these fields are considered to be for the brainy men not for women, comes into play. You have to have the courage and determination to deal with it. I’ve seen women drop out and say, these are horrible people to deal with and I don’t want this in my life.

Finally, I think it is very important for women in STEM fields, who are very successful, to talk about it. Because it is up to each of the women in these fields, to empower others. There are some outstanding role models like Marie Curie etc., However, winning a nobel prize can seem unattainable, but seeing others who are successful in a more realistic way day-to-day can help. So, they need to see live examples of woman around them and thats the biggest inspiration you can give to the next generation. I have graduated in electrical engineering and can attest to the fact that electricity has no gender and we shouldn't let societal stereotypes decide what is best for you.

How can issues of gender bias be addressed?

  • Women should be less shy in speaking about their achievements and abilities.
  • Maintain courage and determination when faced with unconscious bias.
  • Engagement is a 50/50 thing; it should be contingent on both sides to do so.

 

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References

  1. Women in Business 2017. International Business Report. Grant Thornton: https://www.grantthornton.global/en/insights/articles/women-in-business-2017/
  2. Collaborating with men: Changing workplace culture to be more inclusive for women. Dr. Jill Armstrong et al., October 20, 2016: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/news/collaborating-with-men-report-talks-about-changing-workplace-culture

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