Breaking free on International Women’s Day
In conversation with Dr Arpita Patra

Dr Arpita Patra is Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Automation, Indian Institute of Science (IISc). She joined the Department in May 2014.

Prior to that, she did three different post-doctorates at different places: Aarhus University, Denmark; ETH Zurich, Switzerland; and University of Bristol, UK. She completed her Ph.D. from IIT Madras.

She works in the area of cryptography.

In this interview, she speaks to Poornima, J. D., Consultant at ARTPARK, IISc. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo credit: Nicy Scaria, Project Scientist,
Centre for Continuing Education, IISc

Poornima: What does freedom mean to you?
Arpita: This is a very great question; but at the same time, it is a very broad one too. I can give you a philosophical answer; but I will try to stick to the context. Generally, freedom implies the ability to act or express freely without any constraint. So, for a free world, for freedom to flourish, we need a lot of free and unconditioned souls around us, which are not littered with prejudices. But, the world, the society and our workplaces are steeped in plenty of prejudices. Let me give you an example: women are believed to be less capable or low achievers than men. There cannot be a bigger lie than this. But, such prejudices are deeply rooted. A far more killer and silent consequence is that women folk themselves start believing less in themselves. And, they give up their passion midway.

Now, coming to the academic circle, there are more subtle ones. I am not going to paint any happy or rosy picture because the reality is not and I do not lie. Firstly, women are not believed to be born-leaders and the result is that, despite having fantastic and exceptionally-accomplished women academicians, the number of women who hold decision-making positions in institutes of national importance like IISc and IITs are miniscule. Secondly, those who speak very good English with very confident body language are taken to be better researchers or academicians than those who do not. The quality of work takes a back seat. Thirdly, there is a belief that those who earn their Ph.D. from India are qualitatively weaker than those who earn from abroad.

These are all unfounded and I have given you a very small subset of examples from a huge pool. Yet, the number of people who believe in these prejudices and act based on these are not few; the number is big. And the amount of pollution they create in the academic circle is insurmountable. As a result, we have an unfair world, unfair workplace. So, for a free world, free society, and free workplace, we need more free souls… more minds that are as white as that of a child. So, freedom, to me, means freeing our minds from these prejudices, from these unfounded prejudices. Freedom, to me, means growing and letting grow everyone around us the way they deserve.

Poornima: We know that education is very closely related to freedom. It is also rightly said that education is the golden road to freedom. As you mentioned, people do not consider women as equal to men. What motivated you to still stick around and pursue?
Arpita: There is nothing magical here. I like mathematics, and I scored well in mathematics. Consequently, I chose science as the stream for my 12th standard. I come from a very humble background. After that, much like many middle-class families, Engineering in Computer Science felt like a very lucrative career path. So, I pursued that. The real researcher was born in me during my Ph.D. and since then, research is a part and parcel of my life. And I enjoy every bit of research that I do for cryptography – the science of secrets. That is the area that I work on. But it would be a lie if I say that I love only science. I have a great fascination for the field of archaeology and history. And one thing that cleanses my soul is photography; it is something that I really enjoy.

Poornima: Girls are not very much encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. or any higher education. There is a lot of gender bias. Have you ever faced this? How do you tackle this?
Arpita: Personally, from my family background, I did not face any discrimination. But, I have faced gender bias during my academic career. Even before we realise what discrimination is, we face it. In the initial years, I did not handle them, or rather, I did not know how to handle them. It simply felt bad.

Every time I faced such incidences, it made me tougher and stronger. The more discriminative behaviour I faced, the more I believed in myself.

So, today, when discrimination happens, I can fight. I do fight. But, there are cases when we need to prioritize. There are trickier ones and they need a lot of time to fight. Should we do research peacefully or do we want to fight those errors? For the sake of the former – that is, I want to do science peacefully – I need to postpone the fight sometimes. And I do postpone, but that does not mean that I forget. I fight them in my own style in course of time. And lastly, I believe that we live our lives between these six inches (indicating the breadth of the head), not in our house or bungalows. So, for the sake of keeping my mental abode clean, sometimes I just forget and forgive.

Poornima: Nowadays, work is important in everyone’s life. We are living in such a fast-paced world that it is difficult to balance between work and life (some important things like family and health). How can a woman strike a balance between her career and life?
Arpita: When a woman believes in herself, and decides to fight, then everything follows.

Now, coming back to your question, firstly, I don’t think there is anything like perfect balance. Sometimes, it is the science and sometimes, it is the family that takes priority. They take turns, and we switch. Secondly, I have a fantastic support system around me. My husband Ashish and my daughter Aparajita are extremely supportive. With them, life seems to be a breeze and nothing seems to be impossible. They are the wind beneath my wings. And lastly, my parents… just to give you an idea of how strong they are… a couple of years ago, there was an incident where discrimination seemed to happen to me. I did not get my due recognition. So, of course, I was very sad. My father asked me a simple question: “Do you do research for these recognitions?” I was stumped. I thought for a while and the answer was a clear “No.” My father said, “Then, why are you sad?” These are the kind of people I have around me. How can I fail them? How can I let them down? I have to be strong and I know I am.

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