Prabha Murthy

As Interviewed by Sachin Allums, March 7, 2016

Prabha Murthy In Her own Words

I come from India and I didn’t grow up there all the time, I grew up all over the country because my father was in the Indian Foreign Service, and you would expect them to be quite modern, but in reality things were a little different. I went to college from 1960-65, I have a master’s in English literature, and as a career there wasn’t much a choice ahead. I had to choose the teaching profession. When I started teaching in a college nearby, I discovered that I had an affinity for it and also I loved it. I loved being in a classroom, and when I made connections with the students, it made me feel that I had found my inspiration.

My parents thought that ultimately teaching is a good safe profession for a woman that I could continue to do later on if I so desired. That was always in my backpocket, and I could rely on this profession whenever I needed.

One thing I wished was that there were good role models that women could look up too, and be inspired by to achieve their own goals. Since there wasn’t any and I couldn’t be a Trailblazer because that’s a quality that is frowned upon, we’re never allowed to be independent and focus on what we want, or make our own choices. It did not permit me to go ahead with what I believed. And then I thought, “Oh I love teaching so maybe that’ll be a good choice for me in the future.”

With having good role models always encourages women to try their utmost. 13 years after I got married, India elected a woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1980. She served for four years in that position, and it would’ve been a great thing to say, “Oh look, there she is! I want to be like her!” Those things didn’t exist till later and I came too early before my time as they say. We can look at even today with Hillary Clinton, trying, vying for the election of being the president of the US gives so much hope and promise to many young girls who want to seek positions in government.

Even though I loved teaching, it wasn’t really a career choice because ultimately what my parents wanted for me was to make a good match, get married, and have a family. That was the central focus of it. This was like a hobby or Temporary position. Since my father was in the Foreign Service, he wanted me to take the competitive exam for diplomatic service as well as the Indian administrative service. I took it, I did very well, and I was chosen and my father was supposed to come down and take me for the training program near New Delhi. My mother would not hear of it. She said, “A duty as a parent is to get a daughter married.” She didn’t want me to focus on a career. She said, “A good education will make her a better mother and a better wife.”

This civil service exam that I took is not common, only very few people take it, and when you do well, you have ensured a wonderful career that has a lot of potential for moving up and being in a very powerful position. My Father was very anxious that I should do it and follow in his footsteps, but my mother, as a lot of women do, held all the power in the family and said, “No we can’t do it.” There were many family members who also said, “Oh let her go do this, how many girls get an opportunity?” My mother just poo-pooed what other people said, and said [herself],”She’s our daughter, and therefore we have to take care of her.”

The IFS exam I took was [in] 1967, so I graduated with my master’s in English Literature in 1965 and immediately found a job teaching at a local college in Bangalore. The following year, I got myself prepared to take this civil service exam and it consists of 8 papers and an oral exam that you have to represent yourself for an interview. If you pass all the written papers, mine were mostly literature, history, government courses, [you qualify for the training]. When I went up to New Delhi for the interview, they see how well you hold up, and how well you speak and if you are trainable material for the service for the Indian government. I did that in 1967, and at that time there were very few women, and usually only 5% of the people who take the exam pass. And out of the 5% who pass, only the top 100 ranks are chosen to go for the training in the IFS or the Indian Foreign Service. I made it and I was very proud and I thought my parents would be jumping up and down, and thinking, “Oh what an achievement,” in the end they said “Very good, bravo, but...” And the importance of what I did was diminished.

This kind of exam and potential for a career was frowned upon for many girls in Indian society traditionally 45 years ago. If a son had achieved what I achieved, they would have been celebrating and being so proud of the achievement, but for me they said, “Oh it’s a feather in your cap, but let’s put it aside.”

For them the ultimate goal was to see that I would be taken care of. And for a woman, to be taken care of doesn’t always sound very tempting because you want to be able to stand on your own two feet, look at what achievements you have, and be appreciated for who you are as a person.

I did feel a sense of social injustice that I wasn’t allowed to [participate], but also girls are not allowed to speak up or encouraged to make their own choices. We look to our parents to help us make decisions. In the end I kind of gave in, and I nearly didn’t realize what I had lost, what opportunity are given to only a few, and if we let it slip by, we never know what we can achieve.

I immigrated to the US in [the] 1967-68 period. I’ve lived here over 40 years and I have raised two daughters and we have always told them that the sky’s the limit, that they can be whatever they want, follow your passion, pick a profession that you will be happy in, and that is where the future is, and I can say that things that were denied to me are not denied to my girls.

They are successful and this is a sign for the future that we may never solve the problem of gender equality 100%, but we’re well on our way towards it, and that’s the hope.