WUR’s inspirational women: Esha Shah

At Wageningen University & Research, we believe that an inclusive culture – where everyone feels safe and welcome – enhances research & education. WUR’s Diversity & Gender project team is working on a range of ways for creating an inclusive culture. One of these is the empowerment of women. How can you make a difference? This year we will be conducting a series of interviews with women who we see as role models within WUR.

“Let’s develop a thriving sense of ‘collective conscience’ to make WUR a truly gender-equal, multicultural, international University.” This is the call of Esha Shah, Assistant Professor Water Resources Management Group of WUR. She thinks there is still a long way to go. Esha Shah: “I am humble and honored that I have been included in this series, not sure if I deserve it, but I want to thank you for this opportunity to voice my views on gender and diversity issues at WUR.”

Can you briefly describe your career?
I grew up in a small town in India and did a Masters’ in Environmental Engineering which was mainly to fulfill my father’s dream. Personally, I was bored studying engineering. It was a disempowering experience, also because the engineering college at that time was dominated by men and masculine culture. Soon after completing my Master’s in Engineering I was inspired by the newly emerging protest movement against a large dam on the river Narmada on the border of my home state of Gujarat. Also participating in the theatre movement and feminist movement changed my worldview, politics and eventually my life. Following the idealism to change the world, I never quite took up a career in engineering, and turned to social sciences to make sense of the world first. Eventually, I did my doctorate as a sandwich Ph.D. at WUR, which gave an opportunity to develop a career in science and technology studies to combine my expertise in engineering and social sciences. The post-Ph.D. career is challenging due to this disciplinary mismatch. Also, all the creative experiments I did on my research focus (from history of irrigation technology to social relevance of GMOs to writing a book on history and philosophy of genetic science) have not been very conducive to a smooth passage through the academic landscape at WUR.

More personally, growing up in a small town in a middle-class family in India, studying in the semi-public school where English was badly (and mostly not) taught to where I stand now in Wageningen, it feels like a very long journey.

You have worked in Sussex (UK), Maastricht, India and Nantes (France). Do you experience differences in the way you are treated (professionally) as a woman at these different places?
Interpersonal and gender relations in India and the UK are deeply influenced by the highly pronounced hierarchical class relations. In the UK, the direct indirect forms of racism were part of everyday life me being a post-colonial subject there. At Sussex it was a matter of expressed inequality between those who studied in the Public (private) school and the rest. In India, except a few pockets of liberal progressive academic institutions, the larger higher education is heavily male dominated. When I go to India, I get reverse cultural shock.

In terms of the quality of interpersonal and gender work relationships, Maastricht and Wageningen are the most positive of all my work experiences. They are less complicated, less hierarchical, straightforward. And to respond to the question how I am being treated as a woman (of color) – quite well actually. The corridor of my group is packed with really nice, supportive, kind men. I have had many pleasant and rewarding work collaborations with both men and women colleagues from within and outside my group. I want to specifically mention that when it got tough for me especially several male colleagues from my group have provided overwhelming encouragement, backing and unshakeable support.

Having said this, I want to clarify that forms of discrimination are not located in individuals and their acts. Like a villain of a bad Bollywood film, it is not some man that oppresses. It is the covert and systemic forms of discrimination that happen through normalizing certain institutional practices that is very difficult to identify and change.

Do you feel that as a woman you face different challenges in your career than as a man?
Absolutely. I think this difference begins early in the way our society treats both genders and what is expected of them as a good role model. Being a woman engineer, doing PhD, having a career, living and having relationships on my own terms, not having children by choice, having strong political opinions, writing a book instead of being a good cook – for all these, I am ‘not-normal’ in my own cultural context. The historical difference in the contrasting images of what counts as ‘normal’ in both genders is sustained insidiously through many other cultural forms. And although this is changing, ‘choosing a career’ consciously or unconsciously produces a negative self-image for women compared to men, that’s where the difference begins.

We also have low awareness on how physiological differences between men and women’s bodies affect their performances. Women’s bodies continuously go through changes – menstruation, motherhood, menopause – it never quite stops. At our University we may have a considerable attention paid to ‘burn out’, but menstruation and menopause that affect most women on daily basis are still taboo topics to discuss.

More concretely, the Tenure Track system gives a positional advantage to those who are here for a longer period, it is a cumulative system. The fundamental principle upon which the Tenure Track system is based can possibly be described as ‘competition of capabilities’ among colleagues for limited resources. And I do often feel at the disadvantage compared to my male colleagues not having spent longer time here at Wageningen.

Have you experienced a glass ceiling (obstacles to reach you goal)? If so, how did you break that down?
The concept of glass ceiling has made its conceptual entry in academia from the corporate world of Hewlett-Packard and Wallstreet and I am not sure if that is the right metaphor to understand the gender question at higher education institutions.

But I want to make two larger points here. Eva Siebelink, who also featured in this series, made a point that the number of women significantly declines at WUR beyond the salary scale 12. This is a very important point. The French philosopher Michel Foucault said if we want to understand sanity, we better study madness. As much we need to celebrate and applaud those women who have been able to break the so-called glass ceiling, it is also equally important to understand why a significant number of them are not able to make it. Because then it is not a matter of individual merit of a woman (which the concept of glass ceiling implies) but a systemic issue that requires much deliberation.

Secondly, let me remind all the women readers that all those ‘rights’ we take for granted for our lives today (right to vote, to work, to hold a public office, to own property, to abortion, to contraception, to divorce) were not given to us women. We have them because there were several courageous women of previous generations devoted their lives fighting for these rights. And this fight was not against men, it was against the ’norm’ of the historical period – what was considered normal and unchangeable at that time. So, recognizing that we do not have many women, not only beyond the salary scale 12, but in general in all academic positions, and making it ‘not-normal’ would be the first step towards changing it. In fact, most women would have already broken several ceilings of what is ‘normal’ in their culture and families before they arrive here. ‘Breaking the glass ceiling’ to make all salary scale academic positions gender-equal is not only a problem of individual women, it is a systemic, institutional and hence a collective problem.

Personally, in my career, the metaphor of ‘sticky floor’ applies more than the glass ceiling. Much before the concept of glass ceiling became popular, the concept of ‘sticky floor’ was used to describe the situation of women of color in the US – most of them remained at the bottom position for whole their lives. Speaking here as a woman of color as part of the academic staff at WUR – there are not many of my kind around to compare notes and experiences. Personally, the older I get more I feel this sense of exhaustion fighting ceilings and floors, and feel what all I want is a peaceful corner somewhere perhaps on the sticky floor so that I can do lots of teaching and writing and make a difference in society in a small way – the original and the only reason why I chose academia as my career.

At WUR we have the Tenure Track system for academic staff, what do you think of this career policy?
The latest Tenure Track (version 2.0) has significantly redefined three main principles of the previous system in favour of: ‘collaboration not soloism’, ‘quality and not quantity’ and ‘up when ready’, or, ‘up or else’. I personally think that these changes, if properly implemented, could make a huge difference to a large number of women (and also some men) to think about their career differently at WUR. To be able to design one’s own career trajectory as per one’s own preference of timing could itself make many women to pursue their career at their own pace and thereby remain in the system instead of getting thrown out.

Do you have any tips for women with ambition?
By all means follow your ambitions. It won’t be easy. But who said life would be a picnic!

What are the conditions for an inclusive work environment for you?
As all other questions, I would also like to answer this question as a woman of color. Just to stimulate the conversation I want to conduct a thought experiment of what I call a ‘color factor photo shoot’. Let’s assume a typical group at Wageningen – just to emphasize, I am not referring to any real group, just an experiment. Let’s take an imaginary picture and see what shades of color could possibly emerge among the staff. Let’s put the academic staff on the far right and you may see predominantly white color, a large number of men, may be some dots of brown and black, some women. Let’s put the AIO positions in the middle and the color may not be so different, perhaps more women but mostly only in the whiter shades. And then put the sandwich (and external) Ph.Ds. on the far left and the color drastically, dramatically changes. It becomes muddier. Matches color of my skin. Little lighter. Much darker. It would be very rare to find even dots of white on the far left. And then let’s put the support staff in the front and I suspect this may be more colorful, some true mixture of white and muddy, but a large number of women, possibly also stuck on the ‘sticky floor’.

This experimental photo shoot may suggest the race and gender character of our University. Unless the historical disadvantage faced by women in general and both men and women of color is not compensated through conscious and conscientious policy reforms at WUR, we are unlikely to see any significant difference in such suggested character of our University.

And what does the culture within WUR look like? What is your ideal situation?
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung said what we accept as ‘normal’ becomes part of our ‘collective unconscious’. Let’s not sleepwalk through our historical times. Instead, let’s develop a thriving sense of ‘collective conscience’ to make WUR a truly gender-equal, multicultural, international University. There is still a long way to go.

If you have any suggestions for our next edition, please contact Eva Siebelink, Project Manager for Diversity & Gender.