Forty-six years ago, TELCO (now Tata Motors) put up an advertisement at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, calling for young, bright, hardworking engineers with an excellent academic background for placements.
In the ad, was a post-script, which read –‘Lady candidates need not apply.’
While this may have been a common occurrence for that period, one girl student at IISc was deeply affected by that last line, even though she was not actively looking for job opportunities.
She immediately put down her thoughts on a postcard and addressed it directly to JRD Tata, who was the head of the Tata group.
In the postcard, she wrote – “The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the basic infrastructure industries in India, such as iron and steel, chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have cared for higher education in India since 1900 and they were responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science. Fortunately, I study there. But I am surprised how a company such as Telco is discriminating on the basis of gender.”
Ten days later, she received a telegram asking her to appear for the interview at Telco’s Pune facility, informing her that all expenses for the trip would be borne by the company. Despite not being serious about the role, she made the trip to Pune. It was a trip that would change her destiny.
The girl we are speaking about is none other than Sudha Murthy. She recounts how the interviewers assuaged her by saying, “The reason is that we have never employed any ladies on the shop floor. This is not a co-ed college; this is a factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker throughout. We appreciate that, but people like you should work in research laboratories.”
Sudha Murthy, over the last 7 decades, has donned various hats. An engineer by qualification. she in one among the initial few pioneers who broke the mould. Murthy has been very vocal in her support towards social causes and as the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, she has helmed various social change initiatives.
By becoming the first female engineer to be hired by Telco, Sudha Murthy broke the glass ceiling and paved the way for many others to follow suit. It was in Pune that she met Narayana Murthy, whom she went on to marry. In a way, a postcard that changed destiny!
This happened in 1974 and while things for Sudha changed, have things really changed for women at large in India?
In 2007, as a fresh graduate from law school, I was raring to go and take on the world. One of the first calls I made was to a leading lawyer who was known to handle high profile cases. It took me a good ten days to talk to him and when I did I was told that women and girls have no place in his office. The conversation lasted only 2 minutes.
“But,” I began, only to be cut short and told, “Madam, we do not employ any girls in the office. I cannot take on the responsibility of ensuring their safety. We work odd hours and I am too busy to take up the burden of your safety.”
This happened more than a decade ago and every once in a while I still think back to the call and wonder when things would really change for women. Unless our point of view regarding women being the “weaker sex” and “always need to be watched over” changes, there will always be questions around a woman’s place in factories, and on roads late at night. Such hurdles will always exist in the way of true equality unless we change the way we think.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)