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Shakuntala Devi – An Inspiration for Women Aspiring for a Career in STEM

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Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields are rather rare even today. The conversation around this has gained limelight all over again with the new Vidya Balan movie on the biography of the famous Indian Mathematician Shakuntala Devi.

Women in STEM

As technological development takes place across the globe, the jobs in STEM fields are increasing rapidly. Despite this, the percentage of women in the total workforce of STEM fields is only about 28 per cent. With a lesser number of women in the field, there is a stereotype that women are not good at such subjects. This somewhere reflects in their pay scale. According to statistics, women on an average are paid about 11 per cent less than their male counterparts in the STEM fields even in the most developed and liberal economies.
Women leaders are also quite rare in STEM fields. Only 12.2% of board members in the information technology industry are female. A number of female Nobel Laureates in STEM is negligible. In 2018, Donna Strickland received the Nobel Prize in physics making her the third woman in history to ever receive a Nobel Prize in physics after Madam Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.
The statistics are not a representation of the talents of women in these fields. One of the proofs of this was Shakuntala Devi.

Story of Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi was an Indian writer and the fastest mental calculator. She was fondly and popularly known as the “Human-Computer”. Her talent earned her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of world records.
Shakuntala Devi’s father was a circus artist. It was her father who discovered her amazing mental ability while indulging his 3-year-old daughter with a game of cards. She was able to beat her father at the game of cards by memorising the entire deck at that age. At the age of 6, she demonstrated her calculation skills in her first major public performance at the University of Mysore and two years later, she again proved herself successful as a child prodigy at Annamalai University.
In 1944, Shakuntala Devi went to London with her father. She travelled the world demonstrating her mathematical talents. She toured Europe in 1950 and America in 1976.
At the Southern Methodist University in 1977, calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds for which she received a standing ovation from an audience of learned mathematicians. In the same year in the USA, she competed with a computer to see who gives the cube root of 188138517 faster, she won. On June 18, 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London by answering the question in 28 seconds.
Devi wrote a number of books in her later years, including novels as well as texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. She wrote the book The World Of Homosexuals, which is considered the first study of homosexuality in India. She saw homosexuality in a positive light and is considered a pioneer in the field.
Shakuntala Devi was a genius who did not ever seek validation. She firmly believed in herself and said, “nobody challenges me, I challenge myself”. She was a true inspiration for women who aspire to excel in the fields of STEM.