Ten interesting things we read this week

Talking about 'SHEroes' in this edition, Indian hockey player Lalremsiami's father passed away just before her team went into the make-or-break semifinal in Hiroshima, Japan, that would keep India's Olympics dream alive

Published: Jun 29, 2019 06:55:20 AM IST
Updated: Jun 29, 2019 11:45:44 AM IST

g_117835_bg_reading_shutterstock_223235230_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics from zeitgeist to futuristic. Talking about ‘SHEroes’ in this edition, Indian hockey player Lalremsiami's father expired just before her team went into the make-or-break semifinal in Hiroshima, Japan that would keep India's Olympics dream alive. “I want to make my father proud. I want to stay, play and make sure India qualifies,” she said. Whether India won the match or not (which it did), she had already won. Each story presented here – Ursula Burns, Dalit women, Margrethe Vestager, Jasmin Paris – is also a saga of management, survival and triumph not because all the stars were aligned for these women but regardless of it.

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended June 28, 2019.

1) What a deleted profile tells us about Wikipedia’s diversity problem [Source: undark.org]
Clarice Phelps, you won’t have heard about her, but she is a nuclear scientist thought to be the first African-American woman to help discover a chemical element. She was part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team that purified the radioactive sample of berkelium-249 from which the new element, tennessine, was created. On February 11, 2019, in the middle of Black History Month and on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Phelps’s Wikipedia page was deleted. The optics, as they say, weren’t good.

There was intense dispute between Wikipedia contributors whether she deserved the notability. If one of the site’s hundreds of thousands of active contributors mistakenly or purposely adds incorrect information, the wisdom of the crowd will ensure that truth prevails. But in the case of Phelps, the crowd made the wrong call, and the site’s rules facilitated that. The entire spectacle revealed just how much work remains to be done to address the systemic biases that disproportionately keep women and people of color out of Wikipedia’s pages.

Why it was so easy to delete the page? Anyone can flag a Wikipedia page for any reason. They don’t need to reveal their identity or know anything about the content of the page they flag. The anonymity fuels trollish impulses. Wikipedia acknowledges that systemic biases have led to the underrepresentation of women, minorities, and other demographic groups on its pages — and that the problem is particularly acute for biographies of living persons. The site’s own statistics suggest that women make up fewer than 15% of active contributors. The “average Wikipedian” is a technically inclined, English-speaking male from a majority-Christian developed nation. Sites like Wikipedia need to highlight (not delete) the achievements of women like Phelps.  

2) In praise of Indian female economists [Source: Livemint]
Indian female economists are making a name for themselves and the country as well. This piece throws light on these women and talk about their achievements. Some of the women talked about in this piece are: 1) Nalini Ambegaonkar: She was in charge of the credit planning cell that later became the monetary policy department; 2) Gita Gopinath: She was recently appointed as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund; 3) Dharma Kumar: An influential economic historian whose insights into caste, as Ramachandra Guha once noted, were in the tradition of Jotirao Phule and B.R. Ambedkar. 4) Padma Desai: In 1970, she shook the Indian policy consensus after the publication of India: Planning for Industrialisation, the book she co-authored with Jagdish Bhagwati.

5) Krishna Bharadwaj: She shot to fame when she reviewed a book, Production of Commodities By Means Of Commodities by Piero Sraffa. The Italian master was so impressed by the review published in 1963 that he invited her to Cambridge. She went on to become one of the most respected economic theorists in the world, and one of the anchors of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University. 6) Isher Judge Ahluwalia: Another economist who has provided intellectual firepower to economic reformers. Her two books on the stagnation in Indian manufacturing after 1965 showed how restrictive industrial and trade policies had hindered productivity growth, and made large swathes of Indian industry uncompetitive.

7) Utsa Patnaik: She has not only been an influential teacher but is also known as one of the finest Marxist economists in India. 8) Bina Agarwal: Her book on land rights for women—A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia—has been described as a classic in contemporary development economics. It tells us a lot about how gender equality is rooted in inadequate property rights for women. There are several other names that can be added to the list of Indian women economists—Jayati Ghosh, Devaki Jain, Indira Rajaraman, and Kanta Ranadive, for example. Their work has not been highlighted here only because of the lack of space.  

3) 10 women who changed the world [Source: millenniumpost.in; NY Times]
Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans, popular science writers, have talked about 10 women who have made it big in science in their latest book, 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World. They have driven home, through their superb depiction of 10 extraordinary lives, two very basic but bizarrely overlooked facts of modern world: 1) Every moment we live on 21st century Earth is defined and enriched by science; and 2) Roughly half of the human race that we call “women” have as much scientific potential in them as the other half – “men”.

The book also includes a very thoughtfully selected Glossary of scientific terms, explained in simple everyday language. In today’s world in general and in India in particular, there is a media and propaganda blitz that tries to create the impression that girls (and women) are born with lower mathematical and scientific aptitude than boys (and men). Pretending to be champions of feminine rights, dignity and empowerment, our public discourse agrees that women are suited to be fashion or entertainment celebrities, music rock stars, art icons, crowd-pulling politicians, fast climbing corporate leaders or even power-broking bureaucrats.

Scientists, moreover, are mostly referred to as males. We need to make sure that women, and men, don’t grow up in a society in which they absorb images of scientists as geeky male misfits. As so many studies have demonstrated, success in math and the hard sciences, far from being a matter of gender, is almost entirely dependent on culture — a culture that teaches girls math isn’t cool and no one will date them if they excel in physics; a culture in which professors rarely encourage their female students to continue on for advanced degrees; a culture in which success in graduate school is a matter of isolation, competition and ridiculously long hours in the lab; a culture in which female scientists are hired less frequently than men, earn less money and are allotted fewer resources. This culture needs to change, then only there will be more women willing to become scientists.

4) Minnie Vaid on the women of ISRO: ‘Remarkable stories of grit and determination’ [Source: The Hindu]
In this interview, Minnie Vaid, documentary filmmaker, author and journalist, talks about her latest book, “Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines.” In this book, she profiled 21 women, working at various levels of the hierarchy at ISRO. When asked how and why she chose to write a book on these women, she says that it was at women achievers conclave in Mumbai that she got the idea of writing the book. Among the speakers, there were three Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) scientists — Ritu Karidhal, Moumita Datta and Minal Sampath. 

On why women account for only 15% of Indian science researchers, the author says that the key reason is stereotyping. Though girls often outshine boys at the board exams in class 10 and 12, science is still seen as ‘not for girls’ by a large percentage of families. She is not talking about the few (less than 10%) who make it to IITs and pursue engineering. For most parents, pursuing a Master’s in science or a Ph.D. represents long years, marriageable years, family years... The book touches upon some of these points.

She also talks about the importance of role models for aspiring women scientists and engineers. She says that role models are very important. She talks about a quote by N. Valarmathi, a senior scientist profiled in the book, where she says that in every talk or lecture she gives to students she emphasizes, “If I can do it why not you?” A few of the ISRO women did mention role models like Marie Curie and Dr. Asima Chatterjee in India, but most rued the fact that there aren’t too many Indian role models. The author hopes they themselves will be seen as role models for young girls pursuing STEM.

5) The Makers: Xerox CEO Ursula Burns tells her story [Source: aol.co; leanin.org; yourstory.com]
The Xerox CEO’s story is an inspiring one. From poverty, she has risen to run a company. She was the first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company and the second woman CEO in the history of the Xerox. Known for her forthrightness and fortitude, Ursula has been instrumental in reinventing Xerox. Starting as an intern, today she is on the board of American Express, Director of Exxon Mobil Corporation, a trustee of the Ford Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But things weren’t easy for her and her mother. She grew up very, very poor in a Manhattan housing project. Being a single mother and struggling to feed her, her mother ensured that Ursula got good education. Ursula recognizes that her mentors, including her mother, had a significant role to play in her meteoric rise.

Ursula has always favoured speaking up. Being authentic, and voicing opinions. “On average, it’s better to open your mouth than to keep your mouth shut. That I’m totally convinced of. Second thing, on an average people are waiting for somebody to open their mouth and if all it does is catalyze for other people to open their mouth then that’s good,” she says. Both Forbes and Fortune magazine have consistently named Burns as one of the most powerful women in business. But she remains down-to-earth.

6) Dalit women are brewing their own social revolution [Source: Livemint]
In India, Dalits always had to fight for their rights. The question of caste-based discrimination has by and large focused on the identity of a Dalit, irrespective of the gender, and the injustices meted out to the social group as a whole. However, with the beginning of the 21st century and more so after 2012, several groups of Dalit women, big and small, have come up across the country, trying to assert their identity and openly talking about the intersection of caste and gender.

Dalit commentators have long spoken about the double oppression of Dalit women, and also their unacknowledged role in the larger Dalit movement. Although Dalit women have a history of participation in the movements led by Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, the movement came to be dominated by men after his death. On 16 December 2012, “Nirbhaya" happened. The rape of the 23-year-old student forced India to change its rape laws and opt for more stringent measures through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. The incident sparked public outrage across India, bringing thousands of people onto the streets against the failure of the authorities to ensure women’s safety. This was the moment Dalit women groups started asking questions.

“After Nirbhaya, so many people came forward. Why didn’t they do so for rape among Dalits? We have realized that mainstream feminists are also casteists in some way or the other. Our fight is different from theirs. Our fight begins with land. They don’t get it. They wouldn’t get it," says Sumedha Bodh from the Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan, an organization of 500 women working across Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. Clearly, several of these groups, grassroots as well as online, are slowly brewing a social revolution. A beginning has been made in challenging what sociologist Sharmila Rege called the “masculinization of Dalithood and savarnization of womanhood".

7) These are the 15 women who helped draft the Indian Constitution [Source: feminisminindia.com]
Everybody knows who took the lead in drafting the Constitution of India, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. But, this piece throws light on the contribution of 15 powerful women who also helped in drafting the constitution. 1) Ammu Swaminathan: She became a part of the Constituent Assembly from the Madras Constituency in 1946. 2) Dakshayani Velayudhan: She was the first and only Dalit woman to be elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1946. 3) Begum Aizaz Rasul: She was the only Muslim woman member of the Constituent Assembly. 4) Durgabai Deshmukh: She was the Chairwoman of several central organisations. She was also awarded the fourth Nehru Literary Award in 1971 for her outstanding contribution to the promotion of literacy in India. 5) Hansa Jivraj Mehta: She wrote many books for children in Gujarati and translated many English stories including the Gulliver’s Travels.

6) Kamla Chaudhary: She was vice-president of the All India Congress Committee in its fifty-fourth session and was elected as a member of the Lok Sabha in the late seventies. 7) Leela Roy: She became a member of the women’s subcommittee formed by Subhash Chandra Bose and when Bose went to jail in 1940, she was nominated the editor of the Forward Bloc Weekly. 8) Malati Choudhury: In 1934, she joined Gandhiji in his famous “padayatra” in Orissa. She set up several organisations and also protested against the proclamation of Emergency by Indira Gandhi and was eventually imprisoned. 9) Purnima Banerjee: She was the secretary of the Indian National Congress committee in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. She was arrested for her participation in the Satyagraha and Quit India Movement. 10) Rajkumari Amrit Kaur: She was India’s first Health Minister. She was the founder of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

11) Renuka Ray: She served as a Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation. She established the All Bengal Women’s Union and the Women’s Coordinating Council. 12) Sarojini Naidu: She was the first Indian woman to be president of the Indian National Congress. 13) Sucheta Kriplani: She’s known for her role in the Quit Indian Movement of 1942. 14) Vijayalakshami Pandit: Sister of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, she was appointed as the first woman and the first Asian to be elected president of the U.N. General Assembly. 15) Annie Mascarene: She was the first woman MP from Kerala and one of only 10 elected to Parliament in the first Lok Sabha Indian General election in 1951.

8) Women athletes have strived hard in this male-dominated society [Source: thebridge.in; qz.com]
Women in sports have their share of challenges beyond sports as well. Recently, India’s fastest women, Dutee Chand, disclosed that she is in a same-sex relationship. Despite the Indian Supreme Court decriminalizing gay sex in a landmark judgment, homosexuality remains a taboo in India. Dutee Chand faced backlash back home. Born into a family of weavers, news of her relationship was not received well in her village in India’s eastern state of Odisha. Women in sports have always had to struggle for everything.

Women always had to work harder than the men, especially when it comes to sports. And in India, they really struggle with all sorts of issues; gender pay gap, not-so-good institutions and facilities, etc. Billie Jean King once said, “Women get the attention when we get into the men’s arena, and that’s sad.” She was one of the first few to advocate for equality by pushing for equal prize money. In the Gender Inequality Issue of the Global Sports Salaries Survey, 2017, it was duly noted that the gender pay gap in sports is more than in politics, business, medicine, or even academia.

We can reduce gender bias or discrimination by taking certain steps in favour of women in sports. 1) Have a central helpline number for sexual harassment. 2) Increase media coverage on their performances. 3) Stop comparing men’s sports and their abilities to women. Due credit also needs to be given to the Indian Government for the implementation of sports programmes like Panchayat Yuva Krida Aur Khel Abhiyan (PYKKA), now known as Rajiv Gandhi Khel Abhiyan (RGKA), National Playing Fields Association of India, and the Scheme for the creation of urban infrastructure at various levels.
 
9) Who strikes fear into Silicon Valley? Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s antitrust enforcer [Source: New York Times]
She is the Europe’s competition commissioner, she is the world’s most famous regulator, and she has ordered giant tech firms to pay billions of dollars in fines and back taxes. Margrethe Vestager’s rulings against Apple, Facebook, Google and Qualcomm have positioned the European Union, rather than Washington, as the world’s de facto Big Tech regulator — and established Ms. Vestager as an international regulatory celebrity.

Ms. Vestager is among the potential contenders for president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. It is the most powerful job in the bloc — one never held by a woman, or by someone with her public profile. Her appeal partly speaks to a populist impulse from the political left, a David-versus-Goliath belief that it is high time someone stood up to giant corporations, particularly those that exert so much power. But not everyone views her as a heroic regulatory warrior.

Her critics include leaders of American tech companies, Republicans in Congress, some members of the Trump administration, amongst others. But there are way more people who look up to her. “She’s what my generation looks for in a politician,” said Corina Stoenescu, a Harvard Business School student who helped organize a conference in March where Ms. Vestager was the keynote speaker. She added: “The moment tech giants come into question, then Vestager comes into question. She’s the only person on the planet who has a voice about it.”

10) Ultrarunner Jasmin Paris on her gruelling 268-mile Spine Race [Source: Runner’s World; Guardian]
Jasmin Paris not only won the Montane Spine Race, but also smashed the men’s record despite having to express milk along the way. Yes, she smashed the men’s record by more than 12 hours! Paris, who is a vet working at the University of Edinburgh and studying acute myeloid leukemia, had planned to wean her daughter before the race began, but two back-to-back viral infections meant baby Rowan refused to take anything except milk for five days, and so by the time of the race she was still breastfeeding to avoid mastitis.

In between her job and family life, she had to fit her training schedule. She used to get up at around 4am every morning and head out for runs in the hills around her home near Edinburgh. She also went on plenty of long hikes with her baby. “My coach told me to get a weight vest to practice running with a backpack,” she says. “But I thought. I have a baby, I’ll take her. It was decent training.” Top British ultrarunner and former Spine Race finisher Damian Hall says: “Her performance was extraordinary – one of the great British ultra-running performances. Olympian Jo Pavey says Paris’s performance was “awesome and inspiring… It must have been amazing for her to cross the finish line and have her little one there for a hug.”

On diet, she says that she never had to adjust as has always liked fruits and vegetables. Also, the best tip that she can give any runner starting preparation for a hilly ultra is to hike in the mountains. The hardest part, Paris says was the first 24 hours. She missed her family and was hallucinating because of lack of sleep, but that didn’t stop her. Since finishing the race, Paris has been caught up in a whirlwind of attention, with television appearances. All she craves now is a good night’s sleep. 

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