Every woman scientist and technologist worth her salt has likely at some point in their career attributed their inspiration to Marie Curie. I certainly do. After all, in addition to breaking gender stereotypes to become the first woman to win a Nobel prize, Curie was the first person in the world to be awarded the prize in two different streams. But my deep-rooted connection to Curie stems from the injustice that almost befell her back in 1903, when awarding a Nobel to a woman wasn’t a regular affair.
Curie’s first Nobel was for research on radiation conducted jointly with her husband—Pierre Curie—and another scientist named Henri Becquerel, but the Nobel committee originally planned to give the two men all the credit. This only changed after mathematician Magnus Gösta, a committee member and advocate for women scientists, informed Pierre Curie that his wife’s contribution to physics was going to be ignored. In other words, Marie Curie is a household name today only because her husband insisted her work be equally recognized.
Other women have not been so lucky. Rosalind Franklin’s name, for example, should be synonymous with the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. And yet Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins received every single accolade because Franklin refused to be treated as an assistant by Wilkins—who unethically shared her unpublished findings on the structure of DNA with Crick and Wilkins.
Gender bias rests on a foundation of inherent sexism, which makes success for a woman harder, especially in male-dominated fields. Over the years, there has been a paradigm shift in the workplace. Men and women have developed their emotional intelligence, helping create a more inclusive environment. But while women in science and technology are no longer a jaw-dropping occurrence, bias remains and surfaces constantly. Some women still have to break down doors and force themselves into closed meetings, just to have their voices heard.
I was born into an entrepreneurial family from Pune, India. Being surrounded by people who built their businesses from scratch gave me a passionate desire to do the same. With a predisposition towards advanced tech and AI, I found my calling as an entrepreneur in the tech space. In 2016, I co-founded Zurich-based Enterprise Bot, a virtual assistant company that helps companies create an exceptional customer experience. I was later featured in a 2018 Forbes list of 60 women-led startups shaking up a world that gives 90 per cent of its funding to male-led ventures. As a woman of colour, being successful in a male-dominated industry can be thrilling. But when I attend conferences around the world, this thrill is often bittersweet thanks to the lack of diversity. Being the only female co-founder attending a major tech event in a global city like London can be truly saddening.
I know it isn’t easy. Like Marie Curie, I have had my accomplishments diminished simply because I am a woman. Despite being a key stakeholder in my business,
I have faced sexual discrimination, inappropriate messages, uncomfortably worded e-mails, and subtly inappropriate remarks. But the flipside of this bias and lack of diversity is the fact that my chosen industry suffers from a serious lack of female perspective, which is valuable.
So, this is my advice to every aspiring womanpreneur out there looking to build a name and scale their business: Drown out the negative side to working in a male-dominated industry by asserting your ground, which goes a long way in shaping mindset. Keep in mind we are better equipped to be empathetic, which improves decision making, so don’t allow yourself to be relegated to menial tasks. Showcase your critical thinking capabilities and analytical prowess.
When leading a team, remember that the decisions you make pave the way for the team, so you need to set realistic goals. In my experience, women leaders tend to overcompensate on deliverables. This might be a direct result of workspace insecurities created by sexist hammering. Whatever the case, overburdening a team for any reason isn’t healthy. Know your limits, and keep testing them to raise the bar, but don’t shoot for failure by making success impossible.
To prove themselves worthy of a seat at the table, some women will also tune out input from colleagues. This is a mistake. Being a good listener is an important trait for success, especially as an entrepreneur hoping to successfully meet a market need. Having a feedback loop is the backbone of product engineering and product development. So, you need to keep your ears peeled for any information that helps you build a solution without gaps in design or marketing logic.
Man or woman. It doesn’t matter. Everyone needs to know when to let go of the reins. At Enterprise Bot, there are three co-founders. I oversee client servicing while Sandeep Jayasankar serves as our CTO, and Pranay Jain handles strategy & planning. But we are all open to stepping aside when faced with a decision that demands another person’s expertise.
To sum up this entire piece into a few short words: Challenge only makes us stronger, and we become more adept at handling change with every mistake, so step outside your comfort zone. That’s where opportunities existed for women back when Curie was making waves in science and that’s where opportunities for women exist today.