It is hard to select what not to reflect on in celebration of Women’s History Month, as it has occupied my frontal cortex most of my adult life.
I came from a family of three girls. My mother was my main beacon of strength and motivation. I now have two adult daughters of my own.
When I attended engineering college in India, there were very few female students and no female faculty. There were separate dorms for male and female students. We did not interact with the male students in the classrooms or socially. The women’s dorm was a perfect haven. As female students from other branches of engineering and architecture, we encouraged and inspired each other. We bonded and had fun together when we were not studying.
Later, as I established a career in engineering and then in business in the United States, most of my colleagues, bosses, and friends were male.
It was a difficult transition to western culture.
However, the women I celebrate today are the women on whose shoulders I stand. Right under my nose, I was constantly supported by women like Julie, Gladys, Ginger, and Veronica — my home help support group over the years. Most of them fought personal battles, yet kept marching forward, and never shirked the responsibility for their own kids — however hard it got. Traditional expected roles did not work out for them, and they became home help for others, like me. But the seasoned wood of their boat and the mental strength of their sails took them far.
How could I have run my own company without the two nannies who helped me raise my daughters? Julie was the first. Three weeks after my first daughter was born, I went back to work, leaving my newborn in her arms. Julie was a Scandinavian woman in her thirties, with fair skin and blue eyes. She was smart and when my daughter was older, they enjoyed playing board games together. Julie was mesmerized by my daughter’s brown eyes, dark skin, and straight black hair. She would say that the boys would be falling all over her.
When my company went public, I gave Julie shares of its stock, which she gave to her nephew — her own hard-earned money. She stayed with my family for six years. Unfortunately, she died prematurely of heart failure. She left a memorable note for my older daughter. My younger one was still just a baby.
After we lost Julie, Ginger came. She had raised two daughters of her own and looked after my girls for the next 12 years. She was a loving, conscientious, and vigilant nanny. She scolded the kindergarten teacher for forgetting to put my daughter’s sweater on and kept a close eye on my girls as they grew up into young ladies.
After four years of working for me, Ginger gave me her notice, saying that she needed weekends off after working long hours during the week. A few weeks later, my girls noticed a new lady come in to talk to me. My older one, now 11, said she would want to meet the person I was selecting. I realized that they were no longer babies. Looking at my younger daughter, I reassuringly said, “We will find someone who does not discipline you so much.” She shot back, “I love Ginger, Mommy.” My husband urged me to talk to Ginger, so I went to her cottage and asked her if she would consider staying. We both had tears in our eyes when she agreed. I did not realize that Ginger was as attached to my daughters, as they were to her. Taking care of them was not just a job for Ginger.
The other women who helped me at home were house managers and personal assistants, who made it possible for me to pursue my career. Veronica has been a confidante of mine whose wisdom I seek.
It is hard to be closely woven into someone else’s family. Unfortunately, as their employer, I did not want to pry into their personal battles. The glimpse that I had into their private lives left me with more questions than answers.
My relationships with Julie, Gladys, Ginger, and Veronica were never transactional. In hindsight, I feel that in the hustle and bustle of my life, I could have been kinder and gentler with them. To my credit, I did treat them the same way I treated the executives of my company, a little too strict and demanding, but also generous with praise. I am not sure that they ever saw that side of me.
Currently, I serve on several nonprofit boards in Silicon Valley dedicated to mathematical research, healthcare, medical research, and fostering entrepreneurship. All these organizations are led by impressive women. I get to see how they lead with humbleness and finesse.
Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, is on the board of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Maria Klawe is sharp and astute. She was the first woman to head the department of mathematics of a prestigious college.
Her thoughts and comments are insightful and savvy, leading to better decision-making. She is also an accomplished artist, and completes a watercolor at every board meeting!
Her antennae are extra sharp to ensure women are being evaluated fairly. She is exemplary in this regard.
Women keep making huge progress, just in my lifetime. More women than ever are finally assuming important roles, and people talk them up because they have earned the respect.
But we cannot forget those who got us here, people like my mom and the ladies who have paved my path.