Meet women trailblazers who have achieved newer and greater heights

These include a SEBI chair, railway board chief and army captain among others

gallery-image Commander Prerna Deosthalee
gallery-image Captain Sandhya Mahla
gallery-image V. Bellie
gallery-image Madhabi Puri Buch
gallery-image Jaya Varma Sinha
gallery-image Lizy Abraham

This Republic Day, history was made twice on the Kartavya Path. First, the Union government dedicated the 2024 Republic Day Parade to women in a captivating display of 25 vibrant tableaux showcasing a ‘Viksit Bharat’―a nation developing at the hands of its women. Second, Captain Sandhya Mahla became the first woman to command a women-only tri-contingent from the Army, Navy and Air Force at the parade. This was naari shakti at its best and strongest, showcasing the multifaceted roles women hold within the armed forces. “We have been trained to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our male counterparts,”says Mahla. “We are all on the same footing and that is what makes it a thrill to work as a woman Army officer.”Her name will go down in history alongside that of Commander Prerna Deosthalee, the first woman commanding officer of an Indian naval warship, INS Trinkat. Her appointment, says Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar, has been in sync with the Navy’s philosophy of ‘all roles-all ranks’ for female personnel.

This is the empowering decade of naari shakti (women power), and may their tribe increase! ―Jaya Varma Sinha, CEO and chairperson, Railway Board

In the civilian world, the trailblazers have pursued their dreams with aggression, passion and empathy. Their progress and accomplishments have been antidotes to popular presumptions that women should restrict their lives to unpaid work at home, that people undervalue traits seen as ‘feminine’ and that men are uncomfortable with women in power. When Madhabi Puri Buch, after her long stint in the private sector, became the first woman and youngest person to head the Securities and Exchange Board of India, she brought in not just a varied experience but also empathy. Like Buch, each of the six trailblazers featured in the coming pages, with their accomplishments and accolades, fall in perfect harmony with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day―‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’. From successfully undertaking and executing complex scientific endeavours in India’s space programme to commanding warships and leading battalions and heading India’s biggest financial institution, these women have established their presence and prominence quietly and assertively. As Jaya Varma Sinha, the first woman to head the Railway Board, puts it succinctly, “This is the empowering decade of naari shakti (women power), and may their tribe increase!”

The most poignant takeaway from the conversations with these women is that almost all of them dismissed having experienced any kind of sexism in their journey to the top. Ask Sinha and she brushes it off saying, “Just the usual ones, nothing really that deserves a mention.” Mahla, meanwhile, says that these things are not given much thought nowadays, as they do not exist anymore, especially in the Army. But the all-woman crew behind the WESAT (Women Engineered Satellite), again a first, were vocal about their share of sexist sceptics. The 43-member team faced hurdles in securing sufficient funding for the project, owing to conservative mindsets that refused to believe that a women-only crew could put a satellite in orbit.

And then comes another set of figures, hinting at all the work that still needs to be done. This past year was also the year when 5.55 lakh girls dropped out of elementary school, as per government records. A study, published in The Lancet Global Health on December 15, stated that one in five girls got married below the legal age of 18. This one year, not a single woman scientist won the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology. As per the data provided by the National Commission for Women, there were 28,811 complaints of crimes against women from a single state―Uttar Pradesh. This was also the year when only 100 of 2,000 listed firms had women in leadership positions, and yet another year when Bollywood failed to achieve pay parity between male and female actors. Male casual workers earned 23 per cent more than women per hour, as per The Periodic Labour Force Surveys that monitors gender earnings gap across various forms of employment.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my grandmother was one of very few female teachers in a school in central Mumbai. I remember her telling us that there were no separate toilets for women then. Her salary, too, was always less than that of her male counterparts. Feminism back then was about women trying to make a safe space for themselves in the world of men by battling blatant sexism in everyday life, and somehow managing to stand tall on their own feet, with or without help. Feminism today and in the coming future, say experts, is more about pulling men into women’s universe and getting them to be more involved into being equal partners at home and at work, thereby taking the narrative of gender equality several miles ahead. Going forward, we hope that with each passing year, our reality mirrors our hopes and dreams, that we, as women, earn not just more doctorates, but also more money; that even as we overtake men in the workforce, we do not end up doing most of the housework; that even as we make most of the consumer decisions, we are also trusted to run a higher chunk of Fortune 500 companies; and that motherhood be seen as a choice and not a career liability.