Powerhouse South Asian Women in STEM – In Conversations with Dr Asha Rao and Dr Astha Singh

We, at SAARI Collective, wish to mark National Science Week by celebrating some remarkable South Asian Women working in STEM over the coming weeks. It is a well-known reality that Australia’s STEM sector does not represent women and gender diverse people sufficiently – whether that be in classrooms or the workplace. The tangible glass ceiling gets all the more real when you add race to the mix and makes the idea of establishing a career, an identity, as a South Asian woman in STEM daunting. 

We leverage this week to spotlight the tremendous efforts and immeasurable contributions of South Asian women across Australia and invite you to join us in recognising and celebrating their journeys – packed with experiences surrounding challenges, uncertainties, nervous first days, small and big wins and the unceasing desire to grow. Let's amplify their stories and inspire the ones to come. Let's turn the 'well-known reality' into shattered fragments of glass. 

Today, we kick off our series by sharing the journeys of Dr Asha Rao, the current Associate Dean of Mathematical Sciences within the School of Sciences at RMIT University, and Dr Astha Singh, the Asia Pacific lead for Marketing at Faethm AI.

Profile - Dr Asha Rao 

On adaptability, biases and navigating the STEM sector as a South Asian woman 

Professor Asha Rao is the current Associate Dean of Mathematical Sciences within the School of Sciences at RMIT University. Currently based in Melbourne, her career of over thirty years transverses cybersecurity, risk management and gender equity within the sciences. She was the Inaugural Chair of the Women in Maths, an initiative that challenges the status quo of a male-dominated field.

Notably though, all of this almost did not happen.

“I never considered a career in mathematics until I finished my degree,” says Dr Rao. Her undergraduate degree had focused on physics, chemistry and mathematics and she had no concrete plans to pursue postgraduate studies in mathematics, as chemistry was more challenging to her. Instead, Dr Rao married soon after graduation, and with her newly wedded life came the news of a gold medal for mathematics in her district in Mangalore, India.  “I didn’t expect to win the gold medal, I was just so surprised!” she says.

The encouragement of her family and teachers pushed her to pursue a Masters in Mathematics, where minimal class hours and the absence of arduous long practical labs, unlike her undergraduate studies, allowed her to focus on her son when not studying. 

Dr Rao reflects that since then, she has never looked back. A PhD, the migration to Australia, and the beginning of her academic years as an associate lecturer at RMIT have allowed her to build an impressive career. She attributes the reason for her success to her joy and love for mathematics, which is vivacious and strong even through the video call. She reiterates the importance of this joy when navigating the field of choice -

“I would suggest to be passionate. I think that is the first thing. Everything else may come later.” 

That is not to say that she does not acknowledge the challenges surrounding the industry. Dr Rao is acutely aware that passion is not the only ingredient to success. “There are certain ways in which things are done, decided by white men [based on] what works for them”. Those decisions, the systemic barriers, and the challenges women of colour face in the sciences are obstacles that must be addressed by both the individual and allies. 

For the individual, Dr Rao evokes the imagery of a flowing river. “Go around obstacles. Find your path. If you come to a dead-end, a river doesn't stop. It changes course, goes elsewhere saying, 'Oh, I can't go there? Fine, I will go this way', and that is what we need to do”. 

Being adaptable and tenacious in the pursuit of one’s passion has enabled Asha to challenge the biases and stereotypes of the industry. She calls on allies to reflect and challenge their own biases too, which can often unconsciously construct our perception and interactions with others in a certain way.

“We need to take a step back [and] think - do I have an unconscious bias here? How is this affecting what I do? And the minute we are conscious of the bias, there are more chances of us supporting people to whom we would have a bias against”.

When asked about her advice for young South Asian women seeking a career in STEM she reinforces the power of self. “It's possible. It depends on you - you are the only person who can stop yourself. So when you stop yourself, it's you stopping yourself. No one else can stop you.”

You can connect with Dr Rao via LinkedIn and Twitter.

Profile – Dr Astha Singh

"Join STEM fields, play hard, work smart and make a career and life that you have always dreamt of.”

Dr Astha Singh is currently the Asia Pacific lead for Marketing at Faethm AI, a unique ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) analytics platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to model the impact of emerging technologies on any economy, industry, organisation or workforce.

Dr Singh leverages her passion for science communication and technology marketing to develop innovative and creative solutions for some of the most critical problems of today. Remarkably, she also worked on a revolutionary idea to build an app that digitally transcribes technical scientific terminology into accessible language. Astha presented the idea as a finalist in the TedX Fast Ideas Conference in Sydney (2017). 

Her journey from being a researcher to a science communication and marketing specialist was not “that straightforward at all.” While she did not have a clear direction to “finding [her] field or passion, [she] trusted the path and decided to give it [her] all along the way”. Like many migrant women working in STEM, Dr Singh knows that the “phases of discovery [and] experimentation with your career while finding your feet in a new country by yourself isn’t always easy”.

However, she credits her determination to her North Indian heritage, which she claims has helped her approach challenges with “resilience, perseverance and humility” and has also inspired her to always “lend a helping hand along the way.” 

Dr Singh extends her passion for STEM beyond her own career and achievements. Alongside 30 of Australia's best scientists, she conceptualised and led a nationwide project on Diversity in STEM on Australia’s Science Channel.

“Australia is a melting pot of human capital and talent that encompasses a significant proportion of women of colour. There is a surfeit of initiatives for Women in STEM [to take advantage of]." 

However, Dr Singh observes that South Asian women, in particular, are impeded in their “capacity to excel in leadership positions” due to their caring responsibilities for the children and elders in their families. “This is something we need to acknowledge as a society and move forward with smarter and more logical solutions to neutralise the problem,” she says.

When asked what advice you would give to South Asian girls and women hoping to enter STEM careers, Dr Singh provided some bite-sized powerful nuggets of wisdom:

  • “Be bold: Our parents and families want [the] best for us, but they don’t always have all the right tools, information or perspectives to [point] us in the right direction. That’s why we have to be a little brave and choose our path while we also trust our instincts.”

  • “Continually invest in learning: If we think we have learnt it all at [any] stage in our careers, we are so wrong! [In] the world we live in now, learning is going to be pivotal in making us who we are every step of the way. Openness to learning brings flexibility in our mindsets which adds to our leadership journey.”

  • “Know when to sacrifice: You cannot have everything. There are a finite number of hours in a day and bandwidth in our brains. If we harness most of the brain capacity to do what we are doing we still can’t achieve everything. So, it is important to know and understand that we will have to sacrifice certain things in life. It is not what we do, we are already doing everything we can, but what we don’t do [that] makes a real difference.”

You can connect with Dr Singh via LinkedIn

Tanaya Joshi is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She is the Impact and Communications Officer at Earthwatch Institute, a sustainability not for profit. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

Sadaf Zafir is a science and culture writer at SAARI. She has a background in biomedical science and is an application development analyst at Accenture. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

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