My Professional Journey: A Tale of Tradeoffs, Choices and Self-Belief

The role of gender in one’s professional trajectory is much more subtle than we think. It is not as much about workplace discrimination and overt behavior, but has more to do with norms and values which are embedded in our own ways of thinking and how we react to external factors, writes Prof. Rupa Chanda

When I was asked to write about what it has taken to get to where I am today, my first reaction was to ask myself what was special about my journey to warrant writing about it? Like any other professional, I have pursued higher studies, worked hard, followed my interest, and tried to carve a niche for myself. However, when I thought more about it in the context of International Women’s Day, I realized that an important part of charting my professional course has been to confront gender norms and social stereotypes and to make difficult choices, many of which a male counterpart may not have faced to that extent. At every critical juncture, when deciding which fork to take on my career path, where to locate, how to allocate my time between personal and professional responsibilities and interests, I have faced tradeoffs and conflicts. Only self-belief and determination have pulled me through these points in life.

Let me begin with my first job, which was as an Economist at the International Monetary Fund in  Washington, DC. I joined the IMF right after completing my doctoral studies in 1994. I faced the classic two-body problem when taking up this job as my husband was working in New York. But I weighed in on professional and career aspirations over personal considerations because doing policy-related work in developing countries is what had motivated me to study Economics in the first place. Getting an opportunity to go to developing countries, discuss their policy concerns with authorities and get a first-hand feel of development issues was something I had always wanted to do. Moreover, I was placed in a key department which oversaw all external policy matters of IMF member countries, so this was an exciting offer. However, my decision to relocate from New York to Washington, choosing career over family, was not without its critics. I faced comments such as “Rupa is too career minded”, “She should learn to sacrifice and adjust and think more about family life”. I had not even started my career and people were already judging me! Some suggested that I should take up adjunct teaching positions around NY. I remember snapping and telling one of them that when the time came, they would see what I am capable of and my priorities. I am sure that a male counterpart would never have faced such comments and would have been lauded for getting this same position. I was clear in my mind that I would not give up this opportunity. What I realized then is that it is best to just believe in one’s decisions and not pay too much attention to how people judge you. I cannot say this was always easy to do. It took some mental hardening on my part.

Subsequently, when my husband relocated to IISc Bangalore in 1996, I was again faced with a critical choice. Should I leave the IMF and relocate to India? Should I not work a bit longer to really make the IMF experience worthwhile? And if India, why Bangalore as this was not a city known to me at all? Why not Delhi where I had family? There were hardly any good options for an Economics person in Bangalore, especially someone interested in being close to the policy world. After much introspection, I decided I would take the plunge and would relocate. Although I had offers in Delhi, I decided to prioritize family over my personal locational preference this time and looked for positions in Bangalore. I joined IIMB as a visiting faculty in 1997, with a three-year leave from the IMF.

Moments of Truth

I cannot say that I was happy with my locational decision. Even though IIMB treated me well and I did fine with the teaching and other responsibilities, I did not like being somewhere where there was hardly any policy connect either within the system or outside in the city. I felt very isolated. As I had not studied in India, I had no existing network of academics or professionals either. I had also never fancied myself in a management school, having always been a part of a mainstream Economics department.

I realized soon that I was becoming bitter about my decision and this was affecting my work and development. I decided that instead of letting these issues pull me down, I would need to be proactive and create opportunities for myself to overcome my locational disadvantage. The onus was on me to build my ecosystem. I reached out to policy think tanks such as ICRIER in Delhi and fortunately received very positive responses from them. I started using my summer months to stay in Delhi so that I could engage with them through projects, seminars, and policy papers. This was not always easy as I had two children whom I would take along with me to Delhi during their summer holidays while I worked there. Thanks to family support and flexibility, I could manage this process.

As they say, hard work always pays off. I worked very hard on the initial assignments given to me, was given additional responsibilities to supervise and shape large research projects from the government and was able to make a mark in several cases. My first policy paper became India’s position paper on the subject at the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussions on services. A subsequent piece done for the World Health Organization (WHO) became a guiding framework for developing countries and has since spawned academic and policy work in the domain. I was able to establish myself in certain niches such as trade in services, trade and health, and mobility of professionals. The satisfaction I derived from these engagements cannot be described as I felt I had found my space and was able to shape the development debate in these areas. Soon I had a strong network of peer researchers and mentors and a connect with government as well as a variety of international institutions.

Challenges and Learnings

Overall, between 1999 and 2007, I grew as a professional in terms of my research interests, exposure, and learning. I could successfully create my own ecosystem which helped me sustain my interests and aspirations. Since then, the platforms created in those initial years and continued hard work and focus have led to more growth avenues, including membership of expert committees, research collaborations, contributions to edited books, and participation in national and international discussions.

The professional development process was not without its challenges. One had to constantly balance the demands of travel and external work pressures and deadlines with the time needed for one’s personal duties, alongside IIMB work. One could never stay long enough at a conference or participate in all the events one wanted to as there were children to run back to. This is where being at IIMB really helped given the autonomy and flexibility the institution provided and the trust it reposed in its faculty. Determination, self-belief, and time management along with family support, especially that of my parents, enabled me to create and take advantage of opportunities at every step. I also had the good luck of having Isher Judge Ahluwalia as a mentor. She guided me on both personal and professional matters and pushed me to take up new challenges. During this period, I also had to prioritize between a growth path within the institute and outside. I opted for the latter by choosing to spend time on research and policy-oriented work over administrative roles that were offered to me on several occasions. I was clear that it would be very hard to manage a busy professional life and devote time to my two children, alongside major administrative roles within IIMB. Till date, all the male colleagues from my recruitment cohort have undertaken significant administrative positions except me, but this was a conscious choice. In some ways it may have affected my subsequent role within the institute or other leadership opportunities, but I realize that a professional woman has a tougher balancing act than a man, no matter what support she gets, and such prioritization is necessary.

In all, my 26-year journey as a professional has been very enriching and fulfilling. It has also taught me several valuable lessons. First, there is no substitute for hard work, sincerity, and determination as merit alone is not sufficient. Second, at every step, one has to prioritize and learn to accept and move on once a decision is taken. Third, one has to create opportunities for oneself and leverage them effectively. Fourth, one must not judge oneself by others’ metrics and expectations. This is especially true for a working woman with family commitments. Instead, one must have confidence in one’s decisions and priorities so as to do both tasks well, without bitterness. Finally, the role of gender in one’s professional trajectory is much more subtle than we think. It is not as much about workplace discrimination and overt behavior but has more to do with norms and values which are embedded in our own ways of thinking and how we react to external factors. So, a large part of tackling gender norms and pressures is to first understand our own mindset, then address those beliefs which may be constraining us, and finally define ourselves in our own ways as working women.

Source: IIMB Blog Post