August 31, 2005

An ode to JRD- Sudha Murthy

The article below gives Sudha Murthy's account of how a job advertisement from the Tatas changed her entire life as wellas made JRD Tata change his rules. Sudha was livid when a job advertisement posted by a Tatacompany at the institution where she was completing her post graduationstated that " Lady candidates need not apply." She dashed off a post cardto JRD Tata protesting against the discrimination. Following this, Sudha was called for an interview and shebecame the first female engineer to work on the shop floor atTelco (now Tata Motors). It was the beginning of an association that wouldchange her life in more ways than one.

The following is her account:

"There are two photographs that hang on my office wall.Everyday when I enter my office I look at them before starting my day. They are pictures of two old people. One is of agentleman in a blue suit and the other is a black and white image of a man withdreamy eyes and a white beard. People have often asked me if the people in the photographsare related to me. Some have even asked me, " Is this black and whitephoto that of a Sufi saint or a religious Guru?" I smile and reply "No, nor are they related to me. These people made an impact on my life. I am grateful to them. "Who are they?" The man in the blue suit is Bharat Ratna JRD Tata and the black andwhite photo is of Jamsedji Tata." "But why do you have them in your office?" I say †"You can call it gratitude."

Then, invariably, I have to tell the person the followingstory. It was a long time ago. I was young and bright, bold andidealistic. I was in the final year of my Master's course in Computer Scienceat the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, then known as the Tata Institute. Life was full of fun and joy. I did not know what helplessness or injustice meant. It was probably the April of 1974. Bangalore wasgetting warm and > gulmohars were blooming at the IISc campus. I was the onlygirl in my postgraduate department and was staying at the ladies hostel. Other girls were pursuing research in different departments of science. I was looking forward to going abroad to complete adoctorate in computer science. I had been offered scholarships fromUniversities in the US. I had not thought of taking up a job in India. One day, while on the way to my hostel from our lecture-hall complex, I saw an advertisement on the notice board. It was a standard job requirement. Notice from the famous automobile company Telco. It stated that the company required young, bright engineers, hardworking and with an excellent academic background. At the bottom was a small line: "Lady candidates need not apply."

I read it and was very upset. For the first time in mylife I was up against the gender discrimination. Though I was not keen on taking up the job, I saw it as a challenge. I had done extremely well in academics, better then most of my male peers. Little did I know then that in real life academic excellence is not enough to be successful. After reading the notice I went fuming to my room. Idecided to inform the top-most person in Telco's management about the injustice the company was perpetrating. I got a postcard and started to write, but there was a problem: I did not know who headed Telco. I thought it must be one of the Tatas. I knew JRD Tata was the head of the Tata Group. I had seen his pictures in newspapers(actually, Sumant Moolgaonkar was the company's chairman then). I took the card, addressed it to JRD and started writing. To this day I remember clearly what I wrote.

The great Tatas have always been pioneers. They are the people who started the basic infrastructure industries in India, suchas iron and steel, chemicals, textiles and locomotives. They have caredfor higher education in India since 1900 and they were responsible for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science. Fortunately, I study there. But I am surprised how a company such as Telco isdiscriminating on the basis of gender." I posted the letter and forgot about it. Less than 10days later, I received a telegram stating that I had to appear for an interview at Telco's Pune facility at the company's expense. I was taken aback by the telegram. My hostel mates told me I should use the opportunity to go to Pune free of cost and buy them the famous Pune saris for cheap! I collected Rs. 30 each from everyone who wanted a sari. When I look back, I feel like laughing at the reasons for my going, byback then they seemed good enough to make the trip.

It was my first visit to Pune and I immediately fell inlove with the city. To this day it remains dear to me. I feel as much at home in Pune as I do in Hubli, my hometown. The place changed my lifein so many ways. As directed, I went to Telco's Pimpri office forthe interview. There were six people on the panel and I realised then that this was serious business. "This is the girl who wrote to JRD, " I heard somebodywhisper as soon as I entered the room. By then I knew for sure that I would not get the job. The realisation abolished all fear from my mind, so Iwas rather cool while the interview was being conducted. Even before the interview started, I reckoned the panel was biased and so I told them, rather impolitely, "I hope this is only a technical interview." Then an elderly gentleman with an affectionate voice told me, "Do you know why we said lady candidates need not apply? The reasonis that we have never employed any ladies on the shop floor. This isnot a co-ed college; this is a factory. When it comes to academics, you are a first ranker throughout. We appreciate that, but people like you should work in research laboratories."

I was a young girl from small-town Hubli. My world hadbeen a limited place. I did not know the ways of large corporatehouses and their difficulties. So I answered, "But you must start somewhere, otherwise no woman will ever be able to work in your factories." Finally, after a long interview, I was told that I had been successful. So this was what the future had in store for me.

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