ROLE MODEL – Inspiring Story of Women in STEM in Asia Pacific


Dr. Neha Pathak is an oncologist from India who has lived and worked all over the world. Exposed to the world of STEM from a young age, she understands the need to support and empower young girls and women in following their passions and their dreams, providing them with the opportunities and the support systems needed to enact institutional transformation towards gender equality.

What was your childhood like? Growing up, were you encouraged to follow a STEM education and career path? Are any of your family members in STEM professions?

As a kid, my family moved a lot, so I grew up in several places, from smaller cities like Nashik in West India to cities like San Francisco. My later teenage years were spent in the capital, New Delhi. My father is a postdoc from the University of California, San Francisco. His research focus was on cancer, and I think that subconsciously informed my choice of profession, although most of his life was spent as a civil servant in India.

Both my parents come from lower income classes so the idea of becoming financially independent was instilled in me and my sister from our childhood. However, the emphasis was always on finding that independence through professions we wanted to pursue.

What is it like to be one of few women in your field? What kind of support do you seek?

It is a challenge, for sure. I work as an oncologist and oncology is heavily male dominated. I truly appreciate the women who came before me, breaking so many barriers. I wish to continue the work they have done. I spend my free time mentoring young women. I find mentorship to be a great support system. I have been lucky to find a few women mentors internationally. Women in STEM face similar barriers across the world so it is always helpful to have someone you can rely on for advice and guidance. With globalization and high-speed Internet, the world is far more connected than before. One of my mentors is in fact, someone who I have only met virtually! So, I guess it’s not simply numbers, but that we guide and cheer each other on.

Did you have a role model? Research shows that role models are key to increasing share of women in STEM fields. What do you think?

Marie Curie was a role model for me as a child. Indira Gandhi was another. As I grew older, I found role models in my day-to-day life. My mother’s strength, my grandmother’s fortitude. I saw attributes to emulate in my schoolteachers and college seniors. I realized many women have the characteristics that would make a great professional or even an excellent doctor. It is just that they did not get the opportunities that were afforded to me.

What do you like about your job?

My career in medicine has been life-defining and life-affirming for me. As an oncologist, the beauty of the field is how two key aspects merge together to form a single picture: complex, intricate, and ever-evolving science on one hand; and deep emotions of empathy, relatability, understanding and bonding on the other. My work brings me a lot of satisfaction and makes me feel that I am doing some good in the world.

Tell us about your path to your career? What were the struggles at home, school, work, etc.? What do you do to confront those challenges and stay the course?

I was lucky in the sense that I had a supportive family. My parents wanted me to be financially independent; when I was a little kid, my mom and I would take walks, and she would often ask me: what do you want to be when you grow up? My answers changed a lot of the time, but she discussed each option seriously. So, I grew up with the understanding that I could be anything. The road to becoming an oncologist is a long one. You have to do medical school (M.B.B.S., in India, this is a 5.5-year course) followed by residency, which I did over three years in internal medicine (M.D.) and then sub-specialization in medical oncology (D.M.) again for three years. At each stage, there were competitive examinations, which were taken by millions of people. The stress was high. My medical school was a government-funded one in a small town. My teachers would discourage women from choosing the ‘hard’ branches like surgery or internal medicine. They would say, “Women are not fit for something that requires strength of mind,” or “How will you marry and manage the house if you have a busy clinical schedule?” They expected us to take ‘lighter’ branches like dermatology or ones where we would teach rather than practice, like anatomy. My determination grew from these naysayers.

I decided that I would do internal medicine, and only from Delhi and Mumbai, which are some of the biggest cities in the country with some of the best colleges. I am glad I attained that goal. The higher I rose, the better things became; however, biases remained. Also, it is rare to see a 1:1 ratio of men and women in my field. That said, it was not all bad. I had some fantastic teachers and mentors over the last 15 years who saw me for who I was and not just my gender, many of whom were men.

It is getting better, and it is we, the current generation, that need to ensure it grows even more.

These days, I have reached Canada, pursuing a deeper understanding of breast cancer and geriatric oncology (a study of older adults who are ≥65 years old and who have cancer) through a fellowship. I am happy to see women colleagues around me flourishing and growing. I am also happy to report that more women are being recruited to my alma mater.

What do you think needs to happen to enable more women to go into STEM careers in your country? What is the best way to try to change cultural norms around women in STEM and in leadership positions?

There is a lot of good and growth I am seeing around me. To increase women in STEM, I think the change needs to happen from the elementary school level and with parents. Young girls need to be taken seriously; they need to be empowered; they need to have someone who will believe in them. Government schemes of financial aid to women students could be an incentive that promotes taking of these courses, women starting their own business, etc. Unpaid housework needs to be recognized for what it is; spreading awareness through online and offline advertisements is a way to get the message across. We need to be women pulling women up the ladder. It needs to be a systemic change that permeates to all levels.

Have you experienced gender-based discrimination at work? If so, what happened?

This is, unfortunately, something almost all women face at some point or the other. In a temporary minor leadership role, I was considered too harsh, whereas a male colleague in my place would have simply been assertive. The idea that I may have some tiny measure of power over them was so unappealing to some men I worked with that they tried to discredit years of hard work by complaints and gossip to higher-ups. I had seen this role performed before; people would bring their issues to the concerned person for an amicable solution. This chance was not given to me. It was a hard lesson, from which I learned that the rules are different for women and men. And until we can affect sustainable, definitive change in the beliefs and mindset of people, if I wanted to succeed, I would have to find better, softer-appearing ways to put my point across. It is what it is, but it is important for more women to be in leadership positions to affect such change and normalize women as leaders in society.

Where do you think your country sits in comparison to others in gender equality in STEM?

We are lagging in terms of equal opportunity and women in top roles. However, the ratios are getting better and I hope this trend continues.

Was it hard to get a job in your field? If so, why?

My field is highly competitive to get into and requires years of training and effort. There is a lot of responsibility. But once you are done training, a job per se is not hard to obtain, simply because it is a very specialized and in-demand role. Also, I feel there is high job satisfaction, and that begins during your training period. You also are paid as a trainee, which is not common.

Is there work/life balance for STEM professionals? Is this perceived as an obstacle?

I believe work/life balance is possible for STEM. It is just about finding the right role for you, and then the right place of work. There are so many options and so much scope! Job security is good; on average STEM professionals are compensated decently well, and it may take some time, but you can find the right balance for you. Many other professions, like fashion or advertising also lack the ideal work/life balance, and while this should be a factor in the nitty gritty decisions of a specific job, this should not be a deterrent for a whole field of study like STEM.

What is your advice to women still unsure of whether STEM is for them? What is your advice to women who feel excluded at work or at university?

My advice is to reach out. Trust me, you are not alone. The world is connected in so many ways today. Use social media for good; send an email, a text, or a tweet. Be authentic in these interactions: and you may find a mentor/friend for life. And, it will get better. Stay the course. You will find your way through. Rely on friends and/or family.