There were so few girls at IIT Bombay, we didn’t even have a ladies hostel.



Early Life

I grew up in Mumbai and attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, an all-girls institution. After topping the class 11 SSC board exam, I went to St Xavier’s College. The principal who took my interview asked me, “Why do you want to join Xavier’s? Why not Sophia?” I said, “If I go to Sophia, I get no competition”. He was quite struck by my reply and took me in. We were just 20 girls in a class of 450. But it was a pleasant experience - I had no issue interacting with boys. It was my classmates who made me fill the form for IIT. “What’s IIT?” I asked. They said, “Leja, it’s a very good college for engineering and you will definitely get in, you are so good in math, physics and chemistry”. Back then you had to go to the IIT campus and drop the application physically. The boys did that for me. I gave the entrance exam and got through. Looking back, I must say, I got into IIT by accident. My mother was the chief matron of Bombay Hospital. She really wanted me to be a doctor. I told her that if I get into IIT I will do engineering. If not, I’ll do medicine. So if not for IIT I would have been a doctor today. There was a JEE rank back then as well. In fact, all the students were called for an interview in the order of the merit list, and as they applied, the seats in the various departments and at different IITs got filled and were not available for subsequent candidates. I liked chemistry and hence thought that Chemical Engineering would suit me best. And Bombay, of course, was my home town.

Life at IIT Bombay

On the first day, the IITB Director Prof. Bose gave a speech to all the 400 students joining that year to tell them ‘you are the cream of the cream’. I was made to sit in the first row, right in the middle, bang under the director’s nose. But I didn’t mind because even in school I had the habit of always sitting in the front row. Although I was the lone female in class, the guys were extremely helpful and friendly. I never felt awkward or left out. I remember the workshop class where we had carpentry, lathe and so on. When I struggled with forging - especially the heat - the guys would say, “Leja move aside, let us help you”. Even today, my IIT classmates are among my best friends. There were so few girls at IITB, we didn’t even have a ladies hostel. A few staff residential quarters were given to us, and we had to share the bedrooms. We had two caretakers - Jana bai and Tara bai - who did the cooking and cleaning. It was such a homely atmosphere. It was like I was in my home. I met my husband Satish at IIT. He walked into the class, I somehow liked him and we became friends, I was not so sure how my parents would accept him because we are Christians from Kerala. So we both got admission at the University of Massachusetts, went to the US and got married two months later. We have been married for more than fifty years. Both he and our son have supported me throughout my career.

Professional Journey

I started my career in 1975 with Tata Consulting Engineers and enjoyed every moment of it. Starting as a process engineer, I rose through the ranks and became a project manager. You went to the site and saw what you engineered come to reality and you helped in ironing out the glitches during the commissioning of the plant. I had a long and satisfying career with the Tatas. Why did I leave? When the person heading Tata Consulting Engineers retired, I was interviewed for the position by the then TCE Chairman at Bombay House. The head of personnel of TCE, a Parsi gentleman, told me later that I didn’t get selected because I am female. That was the only time my gender had a negative role in my entire career, and it was disappointing. Satish used to say, “Leja, you’re not married to TCE. Look for other opportunities”. When Jacobs India approached me, I felt I would be a good fit with them. So I joined them in 2005 and I was there till I retired in 2014, as Vice President, Business Development. I learned a lot about international practices and Jacobs practices, which are exemplary, in those 10 years. After retirement, I thought of pursuing my PhD, something I had always wanted. When I came to IITB and met Prof. Gudi and Prof. Kakkar (who was the Director at that time), Prof. Kakkar said, “Leja you don’t need a PhD. You have so much experience, you should be teaching our students”. I was offered an Adjunct Professorship and I accepted it.

Teaching at IITB

In our time we had 60-65 students in a class. The professors knew each student by name. That is no longer possible. Today we have around 200 students. So it’s a lecture theatre format and you have to use microphones and screens and all kinds of things to teach. It’s moved from an intimate kind of setting to a more formal teaching style. In our time, IIT didn’t teach us how to make P&ID (Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams). I used to come for campus interviews when I was with the Tatas, as well as with Jacobs. I gave the institute feedback about industry requirements and we now teach Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams to students. Teaching has been quite an experience but what I don’t like is the ‘crib sessions’ for marks. There is a formal crib session where students compare papers and say, “Why did he get half a mark more. I wrote exactly the same thing!” And I say, “It’s not the half mark that makes a difference in your life. Focus on learning the subject.”

Challenges as a Woman

During my first project with TCE, I went for the commissioning of the plant. There were no bathrooms for women at the site. I’d go out there and say, “Guys, I’m here. So if you come out, I can use the loo”. And they obliged. So, it was not a big deal. I didn’t expect to get a separate washroom for a single female. I never asked for special favors at the workplace. If you want to be treated as an equal, you have to accept the same work pressures as any man. When I was onsite for weeks or even months, I’m sure my family missed me as much as I missed them but that was the requirement of the job.

Work-Life Balance

I couldn’t have done all the things that I did if it was not for the support from my husband and son. When I had to travel, I would just come from the office and tell Satish that I’m going to Japan because there’s a meeting tomorrow. And he would say, “Okay, let’s drop you to the airport”. I was also fortunate to have in-laws who were most welcoming, though I was not the traditional ‘Gori gomti’ daughter-in-law! I went onsite for six weeks but ended up staying nearly six months because during the commissioning of the plant, you are needed to sort things out. Those were the days we didn’t have cell phones. Once when I came home, I found a little puppy in a basket. Satish said that our son Anand was feeling lonely, so he got him a dog. Incidentally, both the men in my life are great cooks and we also enjoy eating out. Now that I have retired and have time on my hands, I am learning Indian classical music and playing the harmonium. Apart from teaching, I am on the board of 3 BSE listed companies and that keeps me well occupied.

Advice to Young Women

Don’t ask for special favors. When the job has to be done, do it. Make sure you have a support system at home when you take up a job. Otherwise, there will be friction.