#2 In conversation with: Dr. Shashi Kad

Recent studio picture for a course on the science of climate change, curated by SAGE Sustainability and partners and aimed at policy makers and students (Photo Dr. Shashi Kad)

Dr. Shashi Kad trained as a geologist at Panjab University, Chandigarh, and studied Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford. She is the founder and CEO of an advisory and consulting firm, SAGE Sustainability, and has worked extensively on issues related to climate change, sustainability, green supply chains, green buildings and gender.  


AB: Dr. Kad, thank you very much for agreeing to be featured in this series of conversations about science. The All India Survey on Higher Education for 2018-2019 records 319 women enrolled in a PhD program in geology, out of a total of 879 candidates. This is slightly better than geophysics and electronics, but lower than other fields like physics and botany. Environmental science is not faring much better. Considering these numbers and the more general plight of women in science, not only in India, but also globally, I would like to begin by asking you how you became interested in geology and why aren’t there more girls studying this discipline in the first place?

SK: It was my general interest towards nature and especially my curiosity about our planet that led me to choose geology. Geography was my favorite subject in school. I was initially fascinated with geomorphology and landforms. I recall that when I entered the Geology Department at the Panjab University, Chandigarh, the first few lectures on other subjects like stratigraphy and paleontology were very intriguing as well. We were a batch of eight girls and six boys, so for the first time in the department’s history there were more girls in a batch. That trend continued for some years—I hope it is continuing today. These are traditionally male, outdoor-oriented subjects and just like in engineering fields, there is a strong mindset that they are not meant for women.

In the Higher Himalayas, with fossils stored inside bag. Tabo, Lahaul and Spiti District, Himachal Pradesh, October 1995 (Photo Dr. Shashi Kad)

AB: Could you tell us more about your educational background? When did you begin to study geology-related subjects at school and where did you complete your higher education? I noticed from your CV that we share an Oxford connection. What would you say are the main differences between studying geology or environmental science in India and abroad?

SK: I don’t have any recollection of geology-related education at school, except for what I mentioned above about landforms and very basic information about rock types, etc. Nowadays there is a lot more about orogeny and plate tectonics as part of school education, but it wasn’t there when we were growing up in small towns in India. I was educated in English; some teachers were very good and I generally had access to good libraries. There was also a fascination about other planets and the basic questions about life and theories around that.

I finished my high school at a government school in a small town in Punjab. I passed my 12th grade at a Government College and then moved to Panjab University, Chandigarh, after passing an entrance examination. My parents did not have any views about geology as no one had even heard about this subject. We are talking about the late 1980s. Traditionally, there was also more acceptance of zoology, botany, chemistry, physics and maths as science subjects or, alternatively, economics and political science, which enabled students to sit for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and secure a lucrative job. In those days there weren’t many jobs, such as those that opened up only a few years later, and many of the subjects that are now taught at university weren’t there. However, while sitting for the Pre-Medical Entrance Test—a combined exam for entering university as well—I met a young girl who was sitting behind me and who was doing her Bachelor degree in Geology. She was writing that exam to get into a better department or medicine, but I kept asking her during exam breaks about the subject and I decided there and then that this was what I wanted to study.

I loved the outdoors, so I thought, why look into microscopes when you can enjoy being outside? I must say I was surprised to see microscopes being used by geologists as well, perhaps even more sophisticated ones, but by that time I had enough love for the subject to tolerate anything. I had to convince my parents that this was what I wanted to do and I am glad I got my way.

In my experience, some of our faculty in India is as competent as that at Oxford. In some ways, it is even better, because the relationship we share in India with our supervisors and teachers is less transactional and more relational, in the sense that there is an understanding of where someone comes from and how to relate with the student. This might be more my experience, so I should not overgeneralize.

The experience of working with Prof. Ashok Sahni shaped my outlook on science. He has been an excellent mentor. He was very approachable and very accepting of diverse mindsets. As students, we learned work ethics, teamwork, freedom of expression as scientists, how to remain factual. There were no constraints on time if the work warranted it. I received encouragement and support from other faculty as well, however I cannot say that about many faculty members during that time. Not everyone was as passionate about the subject. Whatever compensated for that lack of passion did translate into less pleasant experiences for students. We are also talking about the fact that many people were in professions they didn’t like, because getting a job was more important and people found their way to varied fields not out of choice but rather, because of lack of it.

That was one of the key differences at Oxford, I cannot think of anyone who was not passionate about what they were working on. Supervisors could be more friendly than the average Indian professor and they were available for a lot of social time, but they were transactional with their official time. However, we were very cautious of our time and their time, so we tried to learn the most from them. Here in India, if you have an excellent mentor and guide, you learn through an immersive experience and have an opportunity to absorb every little nuance. On the flip side, it can be tricky if that mentor lacks human values, subject matter expertise or passion.

In terms of exposure, I value the Oxford experience a lot because there were so many people from so many different backgrounds and we were challenged to think from multiple perspectives. My subject was Environmental Change and Management, which requires a considerable amount of global cooperation, so it was a very memorable experience. Most people are still very attached to their national identities—this position on action on climate change needs to change. I was a mature student when I was at Oxford and a very young student in India, so I was a lot more serious and so were most others at Oxford. That was also different from my earlier experience in India as an undergraduate.

AB: What are your experiences of gender bias in institutions of education, both in India and abroad? For example, there is research which suggests that the distribution of tasks in laboratory practices and field settings frequently displays gender bias.

SK: I did not feel an inherent bias in education, neither in India nor abroad, when it came to lab practices. In India there were other angles at play, such as lobbies in departments, etc., but I would not attribute them to gender bias. Many boys and men faced the same level of harassment from authorities and departmental politics.  I was not stopped from going into the field, on the contrary, I was encouraged to do so. I would not have accepted it anyway if anyone had prevented me from going. Besides, I was continuously travelling, whether because of geology or for other purposes.  

With classmates, a climb to Tabo Monastery, packing up the bounty of fossil plants, Lahaul Valley, Himachal Pradesh. October 1995 (Photo Dr. Shashi Kad)

Towards the end of my PhD, we once did have someone in authority question me on why I should be allowed to sit and work late at night, etc. I wouldn’t say it was systemic, it was individuals who did not want you to progress and in the absence of anything else to pick on, this came in handy. However, I had support as well.

There were systemic issues in women’s hostels, for example that late-night work in the laboratory was not allowed. I learnt that this has changed in the meantime and that’s really good. However, I have to say that I did break the rules back then. I would sit for as long as I wanted and would come back to the hostel whenever I wanted and no one really stopped me. Sometimes a friend from my hostel would accompany me when I was writing my thesis. We had a desktop in the lab and she would just rest while I was working and I would wake her up when I was done.

However, when I later joined the Geological Survey of India (GSI), that bias was inherent and rampant from top to bottom. During that time I felt I was being treated like an outsider, there were questions about how a woman would be sent to the field, one driver apparently refused to take me along, reasons were made up to explain why my colleague did not choose to take me along. It was clear that the primary reason for their behavior was my being a woman. I had a PhD while most others didn’t, since the intake of new members happens after graduation, and I realized this was something I would have to fight. No amount of convincing worked, for example that I had done fieldwork in remote areas and had travelled on my motorcycle by myself. I used to ride long distances by myself, but that was also dismissed, so I was asked to look after the SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) lab in Lucknow, which I decided to enjoy and I did eventually, but overall the work conditions were not great.  

AB: Scientists often wear many hats, an aspect of their personal and professional lives that is not always sufficiently acknowledged in public discussions of science. Could you tell us more about your post-graduation trajectory and the kind of work you have been doing? Your current position, as the CEO of a consulting firm on sustainability, suggests that you have forged a career outside academia, but how does your scientific background continue to inform your current work and is it really possible to leave academia behind?

SK: This is a very interesting question. As the CEO of a consulting firm working on cutting-edge sustainability solutions and providing bespoke services to a diverse set of clients, big and small, the one thing I could never leave behind is the academic bedrock of my work. I need to have a theoretical framework in my head, one that we can share as a team. There is a lot of peer-review required for each industry of the research we are conducting and this background provides an edge in consulting because I find it easy to do in-depth research to understand what various organizations say and do and then derive meaning from it. I have never left geology behind; in fact, I have had some opportunities precisely because of my deep association with geology, such as becoming associated with work on the heritage stones of India. My degree at Oxford also provided the grounding that I earlier lacked in social research; this convergence of scientific and social research is very helpful when we are working on projects such as creating a climate risk framework for an organization.

AB: In a lecture at the Leadership Forum at ILMUNC India 2019, you began by quizzing the audience about Lucy, the 3 million-year-old skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis, and proceeded to discuss evolution and Petrosus’s sixteenth-century map of the world. I thought that was a brilliant illustration of the ways in which knowledge you probably acquired as a student of geology can be applied to solving a range of problems in the wider world. What other globally and locally relevant issues have you tackled in your work? I notice, for example, that some of your work revolves around access to water, a precious yet scarce resource in many parts of the world, including India.  

SK: I have not left geology behind nor has geology left me. Bill Bryson’s brilliant book Short History of Nearly Everything soothes me. I believe—with all the bias I have for the subject—that it must be really challenging to live not understanding what drives our planet inside out. Everyone must read geology or, at the very least, must read this book. When you also consider Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, you understand that most human problems are of a fundamental nature. This current pandemic has made it very clear. We just have an upper ceiling of resources and we have many people dependent on those resources, so if we do not understand how we have constructed our reality and if we do not try to deepen that understanding we can only work at a shallow level.

Our firm works on creating road maps, helping organizations make sustainability action plans, getting policies and systems in place for better gender equity. It is exciting that organizations want to move forward on at least some of these issues. We are also involved in creating climate risk frameworks, carbon accounting and creating blueprint for sustainability as well as helping organizations with better sustainability communications. Simply put, on the environmental side, we work on strategies for water, waste, energy, climate and biodiversity, and on the social side, health, gender equity, worker’s rights, ethics, governance and disclosures.

AB: For one of your projects, you collaborated with the forestry team at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies based in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. Can you tell us more about this project and how important collaborations with scientists in other Asian countries have been to your work?

SK: I have earlier worked in Japan and it was a fascinating experience for me. This project was about the innovative use of an invasive weed (Lantana camara) that has created havoc in forests in India inhabited by a tribal community in Karnataka called the Soligas. They now use it to make a cane-like furniture for their livelihood and this was facilitated by a research organization called ATREE, based in Bangalore. They received an award through the APFED (Asia Pacific Forum for Environment and Development). I had previously worked on that project while being in Japan and so we worked with Japanese researchers to understand the impact of the project for which myself and my Japanese counterpart conducted fieldwork and research. I would say, however, that language is a barrier between us and there is not enough motivation for many students to learn Japanese. So far, I have focused on my work in India, but would be very open to collaborations with partners in Japan.

AB: To return to the topic of women in science, one of the first objections I encountered when I started telling people that I was working on a history of science project that aimed to ‘unearth’ the role of women in Earth sciences was that in India women have been reluctant to pursue careers that required fieldwork, not least because of safety concerns. Recent historical research has shown that in Britain and Ireland, for example, women have often been involved in the creation of geological knowledge as fossil collectors, stone-workers, illustrators, cartographers or technicians. Without wishing to suggest that this was the situation in India as well, I would like to ask, in your experience, how have women in India been involved in the making and dissemination of geological knowledge?

SK: I cannot say that we have women role models who were collecting fossils, I believe I may be the first woman from my department, the Centre of Advanced Study in Palaeontology and Himalayan Geology, to join the Geological Survey of India or clear a fellowship programme for pursuing my PhD.  Prof. Sahni used to mention that other women started taking the exams for the fellowship and passed them after I broke that barrier. My aim was not so much to overcome such obstructions but to enjoy what I did; I did not think of it as a barrier but neither did I think of it as being very easy. I would have done my PhD anyway, with or without fellowship, but it was lucky that I secured one. I was also lucky to be asked to chair the first session of an international conference I attended in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. So I have also been privileged, I think I was bestowed that honour by George Kukla from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and O. P. Tandon (former Banaras Hindu University) and a few others because I was the only woman at the conference and they wanted to encourage me. I would rather not have a victim mindset and I would like to thank the men who have supported me throughout.

On the way to Mana Pass, Uttaranchal. October 2003 (Photo Dr. Shashi Kad)

 AB: In your ILMUNC lecture, you also spoke about your firm being ‘an all-women team’, pointing out that this was a ‘platform for women who had breaks in their career.’ Can you tell us more about your work in this field and how have your own experiences as a woman in science shaped this activity?

SK: Whether it’s a choice or a forced break, the issue is that when women want to return back to work, they are often seen as ‘aunties who quit the career game’ and now they want to do some time-pass. It is also sad to see that other women who don’t choose to quit are as judgmental as men are. While it is difficult to convince others that you mean serious business when you re-enter the workforce, it may be even more difficult to convince clients, at least initially, when you start as an enterprise. The aim then is to create a workplace that is ‘nurturing, flexible, delivering high-quality cutting-edge work’ and if this provides a platform for women who share the same values, we prefer hiring women, especially those with career breaks. We are not averse to hiring men as such, but it is about prioritizing what we stand for.

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