Columns Conversations

Ten women, ten questions: Harini Nagendra

Vrushal Pendharkar

Harini Nagendra is currently a Professor of Sustainability at School of Development, Azim Premji University. Her research straddles examining human-environment interactions largely in urban landscapes but also in forests. She intends to focus her work increasingly towards the study of “urban commons”—common pools of resources that fall between public and private utilities, and are shared by the communities living around the resource. Her forthcoming book on Bangalore, Nature in the City: Bangalore in the Past, Present and Future is eagerly awaited.

Harini Nagendra
Harini Nagendra   (Photo: Harini Nagendra)

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

I don’t know if i ever wanted to become a scientist. I just wanted to do something which was interesting. It turned out that biology was interesting for me. I would say my mother was the reason I entered science. She was a botanist, and when I was a child we used to go for long walks to look at trees and pull apart flowers to see what they looked like from the inside.

What is the most exciting research you have been involved in? 

Everything that I have done has been very interesting so it would be difficult to highlight one thing. I have been very fortunate that way in being able to select things that I found really interesting. 

Is there one research question that you are currently working on that is keeping you awake at night?

What motivates me today is a larger global crisis of sustainability. What kind of world are we leaving behind for my daughter’s generation, or the generations that come after? That is a task at a mammoth scale that is really hard to tackle, because it is a large herd of problems masquerading as one. Take the scale issue, for instance. You might figure out how to fix your neighbourhood, but how do you fix a broken world?

Who are your women role models?

Elinor Ostrom, for her quality of mind and quality of heart. I don’t know of anyone else who was such a brilliant and incisive scholar, yet with such an open, collaborative, generous, and warm character. She had a great quality of mind and pioneered a tradition of interdisciplinarity and collaborative research among networks of scholars across fields who continue to collaborate today, years after she passed away. If you consider her as a woman scientist of her times, she faced numerous challenges. She was told she couldn’t take graduate courses in economics because many of her professors said that it would be a waste, as she would end up “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen”. So think of someone facing difficulties of that magnitude, coming into political science at a late stage in life, then doing her PhD and going on to pick problems that led to an eventual Nobel prize in economics, the first (and so far the only win) for a woman in that field. She also practiced what she preached: a hard task, because she talked about commons, which involved collaborative work. For her, collaboration was at the core of research. She brought together groups of people to work on problems that affected them and then things moved ahead. That is something that inspires me even today, to get groups of people from diverse backgrounds and experience together, to work long-term in a collaborative, non-hierarchical atmosphere to tackle difficult problems.

How easy/hard has it been for you to achieve a sustainable work-life balance? How can institutions help in this regard?

I have been fortunate because I have an extremely supportive home. My parents and sister have been very supportive, and my husband and my in-laws are the same. So I have never had problems on the personal front.
At the work front, I was an independent researcher from 2003-2013. I could work from home and set my own schedule, which was extremely useful especially when my daughter was younger. One challenge as women grow and take on additional administrative and other responsibilities is to keep aside time for the home. Children need time, and complete attention—not just quality time but also quantity time. This becomes difficult keeping work hours in mind. My university is child-friendly, and I often take my daughter with me to work during her school vacations, which she enjoys. My husband also has a very flexible schedule and we share our tasks. For all parents (fathers and mothers!) with young children, having a child care facility on campus is very important.

There are pressures on young students. Given the length of a typical PhD, the unmarried students face pressure from their families to get married; when they are married they face pressures to have children soon; when they have children, they face the challenge of needing to spend time with them and find it difficult to resume their research, or return to full time work. That’s why having a supportive home environment is important, but many women may not have this, sadly. Thus an institution that provides an environment where you can bring your child to work becomes very essential. It is easy when the family is supportive but what if the family is either not willing to support or capable of supporting a woman researcher with family responsibilities, particularly with a young child? In the younger generation the division of responsibilities is a lot more equal, but there is a long, long way to go.

Do young women researchers need/benefit from older women mentors? Do you think women need to be mentored differently?

Over the years, I have seen that many younger women tend to seek out women mentors and researchers as role models. Several of my women students have told me that they are concerned about what their work schedule will look like over the longer term, and in particular, how they will deal with issues of work-life balance, and parenting. This leads to many thoughtful discussions with students about dealing with personal challenges. Young women balance a much greater set of responsibilities and have to think of many more issues compared to men, and mentoring takes on a different, more personal and involved note of nurture and care in these circumstances, quite apart from and in addition to the research mentoring.

Do you think sexual harassment is an issue in Indian academia? Does your organisation have a cell or policy to address these issues?

Ecology and development—the two areas of my research—are such field-based activities that sexual harassment becomes an issue faced by many. Our university has a well defined policy and an active cell that deals with these issues: they are complex, and require far more than just cosmetic handling. I have not had any personal challenges on this front with my students. In part, I must thank the fact that we have just been lucky, but I am also somewhat obsessive about checking out the safety of field situations and making sure we engage trusted, reliable field assistance before we begin any new field projects. Yet there are “softer” issues of women dealing with unnecessary patronising, with their ideas and outputs being dismissed, or having unpleasant sexist interactions with their peers, which have to be dealt with strongly and productively—mentoring comes in very importantly here as well. But this is a larger problem of changing societal mindsets. It’s an uphill battle, and a long one that we all fight.

What are the structural roadblocks that impede the progress of women in science?

Several. Societal and familial roadblocks aside, there are basic but essential structural issues of parental leave and child care. Many private research centers and universities only provide 3 months of maternity leave for women. At the same time, the World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months. How are these two supposed to co-exist? This sets up a very unfair situation for a woman researcher, who faces a Hobson’s choice: to sacrifice her family income (which may be very important for the family as well) and career growth, or balance her work prospects against the long term health of her child. Indian universities also provide either zero paternity leave, or leave of a maximum of two weeks. Under such circumstances, how will the task of child care ever be shared equally, or even partially, across parents? The availability of childcare facilities on-campus also leaves much to be desired across academia in India. These are fairly simple interventions and policy changes that need to be made, swiftly, and across all research centers and universities.
Universities and research centers need to look at generating a fair, gender-nuanced supportive atmosphere that can help younger researchers, who can feel overwhelmed, achieve a successful work-life balance and prevent them from burning out or losing their enthusiasm and drive. And this is important not just for women but for men as well, to enable them to carry their fair share of the load of familial responsibilities at home. The glaring imbalance in paternal and maternal leave policies is a stark example of this gender imbalance which is so woven into the country’s science administrative policies that we don’t even notice it anymore.

What is one change, that, in your opinion, would hugely benefit aspiring women scientists?

Changing the glass ceiling that still exists, somewhat glaringly so, in Indian science. The situation is much better than it was when I was a beginning student, in the early 1990s. However, a cursory look at the top science committees, prestigious science awards, administrative committees will demonstrate the glaring absence of women. Young women researchers look at these, and see the absence of seats at the decision making tables as a clear signal to them of what the world will be like, unless they manage to change it. To clarify, I am certainly not asking for affirmative action, or reservations for women scientists. But I am  speaking of equal opportunities for women, particularly in positions of power. It would be very difficult to believe that there are no women of ability available for these positions. Of course, this is not a problem unique to science or academia by any means, but the situation in science appears to be far worse than in the corporate sector, which seems to have witnessed some improvement along these fronts.    

What is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you way back when you started?

To enjoy each stage in your work and personal life without getting stressed. I think women tend to put great pressure on themselves and set impossibly high standards. Taking the time to relax, take a deep breath, and recharge is important. Everyone needs a good hobby, or three, or ten!