2012 Honoree

Shaifali Puri

Executive Director, Scientists Without Borders

“I think that in a decade when this country fielded its first viable female candidate for president, and when the last three secretaries of state have been women, it would be hard to say that there have not been changes in the political landscape for women! Again, this is not to suggest that there are not real structural or political barriers that still exist for women when it comes to fully participating in politics, but I think we have incredible examples of progress.” (on political landscape for women)

What do you think of the media’s portrayal of women?

While things have certainly improved in many respects, we still have some distance to travel. I love features like this one, that highlight the achievements women are making, and the impact they are having across diverse fields and disciplines, but on a day-to-day basis, I still think the portrayal and coverage of women is pretty skewed or niche. For example, I’d love to see stories about female CEOs, and other kinds of leaders that cover their strategic decision-making with as much attention and rigor as are usually paid to their domestic choices or circumstances. And it’s interesting to me that there is still such a focus on false oppositions or conflicts: stay-at-home vs. working mother; single, unfulfilled career gal vs. domesticated wife; executive struggling with balance vs. throwing in the towel. Most women I know have much more complex and interesting realities and are far less binary in how they think about their choices and their lives. But, I really do think we have made a lot of progress. For example, I’m excited about the increasing coverage of what women are accomplishing in science and technology, and I’m thrilled by the way that women are establishing new forms of media currency at the same time–that they are leading their way into the more traditional power circles.

Have you seen any changes in the political landscape for women in the past few years? What are they?

I think that in a decade when this country fielded its first viable female candidate for president, and when the last three secretaries of state have been women, it would be hard to say that there have not been changes in the political landscape for women! Again, this is not to suggest that there are not real structural or political barriers that still exist for women when it comes to fully participating in politics, but I think we have incredible examples of progress.

Do you feel that the decline of religion in the rest of the Western World will have an affect on U.S. society? If so, will it be good or bad?

I don’t really feel qualified to comment on this question; not being very familiar with the specifics or the statistics regarding the decline of religion in the rest of the Western World. I do think that if the trend is away from mixing religious doctrine or prescriptions and proscriptions in public life, or away from injecting them into policy or government, and that trend migrates to the U.S., then that is a good thing.

Can you tell us about one of the biggest challenges in your life that you think helped you become the person you are today?

Well, I’m not certain I would describe it as a huge challenge exactly, but I grew up in the South at a time when there were very few people outside of my family that looked like me or shared my cultural background. I always existed between different worlds and cultures without ever being fully identified with any one of them. As a kid, it was very difficult at times, but the experience absolutely made me who I am today. It made me sort of culturally multilingual and comfortable moving between different groups and settings. Growing up Indian in the South also gave me an automatic and unavoidable awareness–sometimes against my will–that there were completely different realities than the one I was immersed in on a daily basis, or than a textbook or television could adequately describe. Visiting my grandparents in India meant plunging into a sensory and social experience that none of my peers could relate to when I returned, and one that left an indelible mark. My childhood definitely contributed to a lifelong interest in things and people that exist outside of the mainstream–wherever that mainstream may be–and in the extremely disparate conditions in which people live.

Do today’s young people face a bigger challenge than you did?

This is a tough call to make. On the one hand, I’m inclined to say, no way! Young people today–or, young people with a baseline set of economic advantages–were born into an infinitely more connected and empowered world than the one that existed even 15 years ago. They are privy to more information, more means of production, and more people than anyone in human history has ever been. That confers incredible advantages in terms of their ability to shape their destinies. I think this is why we see so many young people doing amazing things, like starting businesses, making scientific discoveries, starting social change movements. I also think this is why this is an incredibly globally-minded generation of young people. On the other hand, there is so much noise and such a high velocity that they have to deal with, and there seems to be a sort of pervasive anxiety that surrounds them. It’s very cliched, and perhaps reflexive, to say that these digital natives have grown up in a world with shallower mechanisms for engagement, or developing social bonds, but I wonder sometimes if they don’t face a kind of overwhelming pressure to expand rather than go deep, or even just do nothing sometimes. That is harder than the pressures that my generation had to face. But, it’s always a losing bet to take a side when making comparative generalizations about the different generations.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Many years ago, my dad sent me a card with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson that said, “You could read Kant by yourself, if you wanted; but, you must share a joke with someone else.” I’ve always cherished that observation. Although, my dad did also tuck the card into a copy of Kant’s Logic, so who knows what he was really trying to tell me.

If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?

Oh dear. I’ve always dreaded being asked this question. I suppose if I had to pick one person at this moment, it would be Charles Dickens. Leaving aside the brilliance of his writing and his social criticism, the man loved food. Always a good thing in a dinner companion.

What is your favorite book (fiction or nonfiction)?

Oy. I truly don’t have a favorite book. But, Madame Bovary would most definitely make it to the top of my stranded-on-a-desert island list.

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