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      Cracking Cultural Comfort Zones & Leading the Way for Women in STEM

      Dr. Pallavi Deshmukh is many things: One of the few women to achieve a scientific PhD in India, the mother of two daughters, and a senior chemist at Covestro India. But that’s only the beginning of who she is.

      Besides being a scholar, a mom, and a chemist, Dr. Deshmukh is also a role model to thousands of girls across India. She inspires young girls to become scientists, expanding the comfort zones of traditional female life and career plans in India. Our employee was one of the role models of last year’s STEM4Girls initiative. Together with colleagues from Mumbai she hosted events across India that encouraged over 3.000 girls to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. As part of our interview series “You Can’t Feel Comfortable Leaving Your Comfort Zone. Why Not?”, Baratunde Thurston spoke to Dr. Deshmukh about her own experience challenging cultural comfort zones, her efforts to expand the comfort zones of others, and her goal to preserve the most precious comfort zone we have: our planet.

      “My daughters are my motivation. I have to be on my toes to prove to them that yes, a woman can do many things. At the moment, I think I am their role model.”

      Challenging cultural comfort zones

      From the time they are born, the vast majority of Indian girls are told by their parents that success lies in managing a happy household. Marriage and children are seen as the ultimate goal, and this ideology forces many women to drop out of school or careers before they reach their potential.

      Dr. Deshmukh’s situation was different. Despite cultural opposition, Dr. Deshmukh’s father encouraged her to pursue her PhD from a very young age, and today, she credits her success to him. In the first part of our interview, Dr. Deshmukh discusses her decision to challenge a cultural comfort zone, the impact of her family’s support, and the importance of continually pushing boundaries.

      Today, we’re sitting on giant orange pillows in a field surrounded by film cameras and microphones. Would you describe this as your natural comfort zone?

      Right now, it’s not my natural comfort zone, but it’s okay to push myself out of my comfort zone.

      Pushing against your comfort zone has been a very important part of your life and your career. Why do you think that is?

      In order to pursue something, I think everyone has to move out of his or her comfort zone. When we give ourselves boundaries, it’s not possible to do many things. We have to push our boundaries.

      You said your father inspired you to become a scientist.

      My father came from a very poor background. He was very interested in chemistry but was never able to complete his PhD. When I became interested in science, he told me not to stop studying after my undergraduate degree. In India, the response to a girl receiving [higher] education is often, “No!” But my father always encouraged me to go for my PhD. After I completed my postgraduate degree, I got married and had kids. I began to settle into a comfort zone, but my father continued to push me to do my PhD. I’m very proud of my father for encouraging me.

      There’s a comfort zone you’ve pushed against that is bigger than your personal situation. You’ve pushed against a cultural comfort zone by abandoning the expectations of what a girl or woman should be able to do in society. Can you talk about that?

      After marriage, everyone expects you to do all of the housework. It’s as if the job roles are fixed. If you are a husband, you work outside the house. If you are a wife, you have to do household work. I had to stand for myself. It was my dream to go for my PhD, and I did it.

      It sounds like, despite the opposition from society at large, you had some important support. Can you talk more about the support you got from those around you?

      For any girl to move ahead, her family’s support is needed. Everyone in my family supported me, especially my father. When I decided to go for my PhD, my husband also supported me. I even received support from my child.

      From your child? Really? How?

      At five years old, my daughter had an epilepsy attack, and she needed to be hospitalized for eight days. I was in the middle of my PhD, and many times, she saw I was trying to simultaneously work on my laptop and feed her. She used to say, “I’ll eat this myself. You just concentrate on your work.” I had support for everything, and it still wasn’t easy to complete my PhD.

      It seems like you’ve had to push against a lot of comfort zones. How has that felt?

      It has been difficult. Society has a lot of expectations from women, but my daughters are my motivation. I have to be on my toes to prove to them that yes, a woman can do many things. At the moment, I think I am their role model.

      “When a girl child is born, parents are prepared to pay her dowry. If she asks them to invest in her education rather than her marriage, the parents are not willing to do that.”

      Expanding the comfort zones of others

      Through STEM4Girls, Dr. Deshmukh strives to give young girls the same support she received from her father and family, as well as her colleagues at Covestro. The program works to change the attitude of young girls towards STEM by teaching them about science through fun, hands-on activities. Dr. Deshmukh also uses the program as a platform to encourage girls to never give up on their dreams, no matter how far out of their comfort zone their dreams may be.

      In the second part of our interview, Dr. Deshmukh talks about the girls involved in the STEM program, the struggles they face, and what we can do to help them triumph.

      What did you talk about with the girls in the STEM program today?

      I asked the girls, “What is your dream? What do you want to become?” I also talked to them about the problems they face on a personal or educational level. Then, I had them promise that they will keep trying to chase their dreams.

      I am going to guess that for those girls, this experience is not a normal experience? Coming to spend a day or two full of science, technology, engineering, and math.

      Yes, they are pushing outside their comfort zone. They’re accustomed to people saying, “No, you are a girl. You can’t do that.” But girls have their own capabilities.

      You talked to these girls about dreams a number of times. What are the dreams you have seen?

      Many girls want to become doctors, and they even know what they want to specialize in. Along with their dream, they have also identified social causes they want to support. Many of them have written “save a girl child.” Others have written “save water”, “save the earth”, “stop pollution.”

      So, you’ve got these girls here. They sound highly intelligent, highly motivated, specific about what they want and why. Yet, as we look at the numbers later in life, women are far less likely to pursue careers in science, tech, engineering, and math than men. What do we as a society need to do to create gender equity in these fields later in life?

      Women are put under pressure to take care of their family. And men are free. Society must begin to offer women flexibility to be themselves and not put pressure on them [to fit a specific mold].

      How did the response of these girls feel different from the response of boys who might also go through a science program?

      Boys are always making chaos.

      What are you trying to say about us boys? You say I am an agent of chaos?

      Boys are not afraid. They are not afraid of taking risks. They are not afraid of being failures. But girls try to be perfect. They are afraid of failure. I advise my girls that there is no problem in being imperfect for a while. You have to be.

      Could you describe parents’ approach to investing in boy children versus girl children?

      When parents have boy children, they are much more willing to invest in their education. However, girl children are always underestimated. When a girl child is born, parents are prepared to pay her dowry. If she asks them to invest in her education rather than her marriage, the parents are not willing to do that. The parents’ thinking has to be changed in all of this.

      Are these girls aware of the challenges you have lived through? That they have these big dreams, and yet society is not set up for them to pursue or achieve these dreams?

      Yes. Every girl wants to grow up and achieve her dreams, but many have accepted that when they turn 18, they will have to get married. Life will be restricted. Only a few girls that we talked to believe their dreams are possible.

      How do you feel? Seeing such young girls have such big dreams but also believe that they will never achieve them?

      I wish I could do something more for them. If only one percent of these 3,000 girls would enter the science field and achieve their dreams, I would say this program has had [an impact].

      “One girl can change her life. One girl can change a family. And one girl can change a nation.”

      Protecting the most precious comfort zone

      As science becomes increasingly crucial for tackling the world’s issues, Dr. Deshmukh understands girls need STEM, and STEM needs girls. By equipping India’s next generation of women with the confidence they need to change the world, Dr. Deshmukh takes action on the international strategy of Covestro that calls for both profitable and sustainable business.

      In the third and final part of our interview, Dr. Deshmukh shares why STEM4Girls is good for the girls, good for business, and good for our planet.

      What do you hope this program’s impact will be?

      This program is a small step towards contributing to society. One girl can change her life. One girl can change a family. And one girl can change a nation.

      The first sign I saw here in India was one focusing on the empowerment of girls, on the equality of men and women. What are your thoughts on this government program?

      The government is taking its own steps, but the government needs support. The population is so large, and there are so many issues. We have a pollution issue, a water issue, a planet issue, and a [sexual discrimination] issue. As part of this society, we must contribute to solving these issues.

      These contributions sometimes come in the form of formal initiatives, like the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. Every nation has steps they are encouraged to take. Do you see value in establishing these big public goals for a nation?

      By taking small steps, we can achieve big goals. The first small step we are taking is trying to develop our society. That same society will develop another society and so on. A chain reaction will form, and we can contribute to sustainability.

      Do you see a role for companies in helping a nation trying to achieve these goals? Companies like Covestro?

      Yes. “People, planet, and profit.” Companies depend on society, and society also depends on innovations from companies. [At Covestro], we have to think about the people around us. We have to think about the planet. We of course also have to think about profit.

      Why do you think Covestro has invested in this STEM4Girls initiative and has been trying to improve access to science education for girls?

      Covestro is a company that provides everyone the freedom to work. By inspiring such beautiful [female] minds with creative talent, we can create innovation. We can [learn] from this talent.

      There’s a major goal to reduce pollution in our environment. What do you think of that in terms of a goal?

      We have many goals right now. We have to control our plastic use. We have to recycle. But all of this is the pollution in nature. What about the pollution in the minds of people? Mental pollution is gender discrimination. Boys and girls have to be treated equally. They have to get an equal chance.

      So, we have to clean up the air, clean up the streets, and clean up our minds.

      Yes, we have to clean up our minds. When this [gender discrimination] pollution is removed, we can achieve all of our sustainable goals.

      Stories that push boundaries

      Follow the links below and learn more about our commitment to make the world a brighter place.

      Comfort Zone
      In line with the UN Goals, we push the boundaries of comfort zones.
      Solar Dryer
      Cultivating Crops, Community, and a Sustainable Economy
      Carbon Productivity
      Reimagining Comfort Zones, Carbon and Corporate Responsibility
      Young Champions of the Earth
      Restoring Reefs and Making Waves in Sustainable Business
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