Women's Issues

Confident Women

A piece that really *really* bothered me and a response.


Don’t listen to the dissenting voices, just carry on regardless
Shoba Narayan

October 8, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2013 18:08:00

Recently, the New York Times magazine carried an article titled, Why are there still so few women in science?


■ South Korea a highly connected nation

The piece, which attracted plenty of attention and more than 1,000 comments to its online version, posited that the reason women don’t excel in the sciences is because they aren’t encouraged enough and they lack the self-confidence to forge ahead on their own.

It was an unsettling conclusion. It bothered me because my 16-year-old daughter wants to go into the sciences. How could I, as a parent, improve her odds in that world?

My first thought was to discount the piece entirely.

There are complex reasons that explain why women don’t thrive in certain fields, including the sciences.

In India, for instance, women form less than 30 per cent of the workforce. Scores of women professionals freely admit to being tired of “whining” about this shameful statistic and this self-perpetuating stereotype.

But it doesn’t present the entire picture.

In layered cultures, such as in the East, women may appear traditional but often think about things in the most counterintuitive way.

For example, my mother is afraid of travelling alone by plane but she is not afraid of death. Go figure.

The only way forward, in my view, has to do with how you educate and raise your children.

With this in mind, I have come up with a few observations. Call them rules if you like.

Firstly, my advice is to teach your children to deflect criticism.

This is a key skill because, like it or not, they are going to get criticised. We are often overly sensitive to criticism and the best thing a parent can tell their children is to ignore those dissenting and harmful voices.

When a physics professor is sarcastic, when a boss shreds our assignment, my instinct is to think all of the following: “I suck at this; he hates me; I have no future in this field.” Instead, we need to teach our children to learn how to reframe the situation. Maybe your critic is simply just having a bad day.

Secondly, when your boss doubts your competence, plough ahead. When your professor suggests that you take a lesser course load, ignore him or her and keep going. Make it a habit to ignore the voices of doubt.

This may seem like a big hurdle to jump at first, but once you start regularly ignoring them and doing your own thing, you will gain confidence. Yours is the only voice you’ll trust after a while.

Thirdly, take small steps. Building confidence is a long journey.

You will not cover all the ground overnight. The trick is not to expect that your offspring will turn into assertive, confident superstars immediately. It takes time.

Your children will stumble and fall and, in turn, will learn to pick themselves up. Your job is to be there to support them and cushion their failures.

Fourthly, single sex schools can help, or at least they can in my experience. For my own part, I went to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts. Some studies have shown that women’s colleges have an advantage.

Finally, toughen up. This is something that boys have heard all their lives. Maybe it is time girls heard that phrase too.

As the American economist Larry Summers controversially stated, women do fall off the career ladder. Why that happens is open to debate and will take a long time to resolve.

There are two ways to approach it: one is to change the system, which we are all, in our own ways, attempting to do. The second approach is to change yourself. Change your thoughts and you can change the world.

After all, the only person that you have left to work with is the individual: whether it is your child, your spouse or yourself. Whoever it is, make it count.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir


  1. Actually this is an interesting point. One more thing that is not readily available to girls is an environment where they can develop themselves in science and math.

    I had this ongoing discussion with my husband who went to IIT and then business school in the US. Most people (girls anyway) think IIT means a bunch of nerds with thick glasses and mainly bookish interests like equations and numbers.

    This is not true. It’s the key point that gets missed out.

    Per my hubby – about half of IITans are the poster boy nerds with bookish interests. The other half (where he says he belongs) are just regular people with very clever minds. The most important period of life for them is IIT for the reason that it is like a boot camp for the mind and attitude. They get to interact with other smart people and cultivate their sharp minds even more. He most fondly remembers all his late night discussions about politics and business and many different subjects. (This was a big revelation for me. I thought all they ever talked about was dead scientists formulas and diagrams and equations etc.) To me this means IIT is a period of converting a boy into a man and equipping him with everything needed to attack and conquer the business world. (Shoba if I remember your hubby went to IIT too. I am curious if he agrees with this view.)

    Girls unfortunately don’t have such an environment at all. There are very few girls at IIT and even the ones who are there are not always “open” in the sense of paying back to the sister hood. Naina I agree with your suggestion on community – anything parents can do to develop the community is a great step forward for having more women in the STEM/Bs.


    1. Vaidehi: My husband agrees with yours. The thing that bothers me however, is this. I know a woman (Let us call her Namu, because it is a shorthand of her name). She went to IIT for undergraduate. She is a homemaker and social activist now. How come she quit? Why do women quit working?


      1. Shoba lots of women quit to either focus on marriage and kids, find a different career etc. I guess there’s a temptation to explore some fundamental emotional or psychological underpinning to this … “wired for motherhood over CEOship” or “revelry in apple pie” sort of thing … but often it is a fairly straightforward reason that they’re not able to handle a career and motherhood.

        However, I think young women need to hear the message that it is possible to work out an arrangement. Lots of help is available and its quite possible to keep it going.

        Also not all women quit. (I checked this out, federal DoL stats from 1965-2012 show a consistent increase of 5 odd percent per year in women workforce participation.) Many more women (esp these days) are finding ways to make it work. For South Asian women this includes working out a schedule with parents and in-laws and nannies and finding something that works. Now this represents women who want to continue working in their job/profession. Others take a different career or do something else (run an art gallery) – still are working.

        There is a different class of women, actually people (men and women) who are quite happy with a different lifestyle sort of career. Nurses, teachers, physician assistants, office managers, government jobs – all these careers are very lifestyle friendly. You’re home by 4 and still have time to make apple pie or fix the plumbing.

        Finally there are those who (for whatever reason) simply don’t have an economic identity of their own. Painters, artists, musicians, writers – end up subsidized in some way or another. Either they are on govt grants or they are married to a breadwinner who handles the nuts and bolts of life. For this lot a “career” doesn’t apply anyway, and that’s fine and well for them.

        In all these cases the following factors dominate the outcome:
        (a) How much did you push yourself in school and college? How well did you do? Did you prepare to place yourself into a proper career?
        (b) When you enter the working world, did you do everything that is required – operationally, professionally, networking, schmoozing .. whatever else to advance your career? A big part here is what opportunities came your way. Serendipity is a necessity in life here!
        (c) How supportive is your spouse and boss towards your goals.
        (d) Hopefully there are no incidents like illness or poor judgement or scandals to derail your career…

        In sum, it is possible to make it work.


  2. Ok this piece struck a chord.

    I agree with all the behavioral stuff like dealing with criticism, forging ahead etc etc etc.

    But I think parents of girl children ought to pay more attention to the more substantive functional stuff i.e.

    (1) If your daughter has aptitude or interest in STEMB (from the Eileen Pollack article, “B” – Business is my addition) article then find a good, preferably female, tutor to further that interest. (Tutor in the Oxford sense, not a “tuition teacher” who helps with schoolwork or exam prep.)

    (2) Help with the college application process – get your daughter in touch with women in science and math e.g. local college professors, women executives in firms etc. Doing a project with a female role model / mentor can be a powerful formational experience.

    (3) I think women should also “hunt in packs”. Finding a girl friend who is interested in the same stuff and might apply to the same college is a big help in tackling the problem. Pollack talks about being lonely and working problem sets alone; this is real and important; and being in a collective is the only way to combat this. Two of my close girlfriends applied to business school with me, they ended up other places, but we did work problem sets together and I honestly could not have got through B school without this support.

    Girl power. YEAH!


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