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Tracing roots of 29 women graduates from College of Engineering, Guindy
Are you wondering if engineering, science, or business will work as a career choice for a young woman? Do you question if a woman can pursue a successful career in these fields while enjoying a satisfying family life and still find a way to make meaningful social contributions?
Shantha Mohan’s book Roots and Wings chronicles the lives and careers of women who managed to do just that — these 29 women graduated from the oldest engineering college in India sometime between 1943 and 1971.
At the end of 2016, Shantha Mohan retired from the company she co-founded in the Silicon Valley and decided to spend her time mentoring, and giving back to the educational institutions that gave her the strong foundation for her career. “I started to become very active on the professional social networks as well as my alumni network. While doing my undergraduate, I was oblivious to the rich history of my alma mater, and the special place the very few women in college held among the thousands of male engineering students. While reading about alumni of my undergraduate Alma Mater College of Engineering (CEG), I came across an article about the first Indian woman electrical engineer, A. Lalitha in an article in Swarajya. The debate about women and STEM education was gaining momentum around this time. I wanted to put female role models in front of girls and women to promote STEM education, especially engineering and decided a good way to do that was to write about the CEG alumnae who started it all,” says Shantha.
Though she graduated from CEG with a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering in 1971, Shantha managed to collect the information of 29 women mentioned in the book. “The vast alumni network of CEG was extremely helpful in collecting the information. I got in touch with some of my former batch mates and seniors and started to build a list of women who graduated from CEG. I decided to publish each story, as I was completing them, in a blog, as well as on LinkedIn. After seeing my blog, family members of some of the women reached out to tell me about their mothers and aunts. Once I had the names, I spent countless hours researching on the internet, following threads that sometimes were dead-ends, but other times lead me to a family member who was willing to talk to me,” says the engineer.
Women make up half of the entire world population. Yet, you don’t find many women in engineering. “While the enrollment in engineering colleges has changed from a handful to almost equal representation of women in some geographies, it doesn’t translate to equal participation in the workforce. Critical events in women’s lives — such as marriage, babies and elder care — all interrupt women’s work life. Coming back to work from that interruption in these fast-changing days is hard. I wanted to change that by showcasing the lives of women who not only graduated with an engineering degree but went on to have fulfilling lives, balancing family and career,” explains the author.
The 29 women mentioned in the book can be divided into three categories — those who were no longer living, those who are old and retired, and those who are still active in their careers. “The hardest ones to write about were the ones who are no longer alive. I was quite methodical about keeping a list of the current and copious notes on my research in order to write about them. Writing about A. Lalitha, the first woman electrical engineer, was probably easier in some sense. Her daughter Syamala handed over to me numerous clippings from the press and was willing to talk about her mother.”
The engineer-author says that each of the stories touched her heart in different ways. “Some of the women had to overcome the conventions of the time to forge a path for themselves; some of the women embody the epitome of resilience by overcoming severe family and personal tragedies to become successful in their careers; some of the women showed incredible flexibility in how they navigated their careers. They are all very dear to me,” she sums up.