It’s another day at work for M. Veeralakshmi, whose name means “the brave girl”. Siren and red lights flashing, the 29-year-old expertly navigates her ambulance through the crowded streets of Chennai, India , to pick up a patient. She is the state of Tamil Nadu’s first female ambulance driver. Veeralakshmi, a commerce graduate, learned by observing her husband, who is a driver, and was given vocational training by ANEW, a women’s welfare association in Chennai which trains and helps underprivileged women get jobs. “I enrolled myself into their driving course and my instructors, noticing I was good behind the wheel, suggested I work as a private driver,” she said. “After three years of being a driver, I applied for the post of ambulance driver, though my friends and family reminded me that it was a male-dominated profession. It was a moment of pride when the chief minister of Tamil Nadu announced my induction in August this year,” said Veeralakshmi, smiling. Single by choice: India’s women reject marriage in their millions, but society hasn’t caught up “My main problem is the long hours at work, and lack of restrooms for women on the road. Managing a family with two young children, and doing this important job with its traumatic moments, is like walking a tightrope. But at the end of the day, it gives me a lot of satisfaction that I have actually helped save lives. I believe women can do anything, if they are clear about what they want.” In India’s patriarchal society, it is difficult for women to enter careers that are considered traditionally male preserves, such as the army, driving heavy vehicles, or anything that requires muscle power or is considered hazardous. According to this year’s Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, India ranked 112th out of 153 countries on the gender gap index. This poor showing is related to many socioeconomic reasons, from girls being forced to drop out of school early to women not being allowed to work by their families. Even in areas such as agriculture, women are routinely paid significantly less than men, with differences in capability often cited. “In India, there is the social stereotype of females being delicate and lacking the physical strength to do strenuous jobs, though ironically many Indian women do hard work in the fields as agricultural workers,” said Renu Addlakha, senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi. “Of course it’s heartening to see women who are trailblazers, but we should be wary of tokenism when women are just inducted in small numbers to make a point. If it has a broader effect of inspiring other younger women to strike out in these male-dominated preserves, and changes the overall narrative, then it is a good thing.” Coronavirus India: as online sex harassment against working women rises, some demand action Addlakha said many women were attracted to these traditional male bastions because of a sense of empowerment, adventure, and the desire to prove they could do better than men. Many face harassment if they choose such careers, and are often discouraged or laughed at for doing so. The Indian army began recruiting women in streams other than medicine in 1992, but it was only this February when India’s Supreme Court ruled that women could serve as army commanders – dismissing the government’s stance that male soldiers were not ready to accept orders from female officers as “disturbing, discriminatory, and based on stereotype”. In the police force, only 6 per cent of officers in the country are female, according to a report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, far from the target of 33 per cent set by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2015. Tulika Sharan, senior director of program management at digital business transformation firm Publicis Sapient, wrote in a chapter in the book The Working Woman: Indian Perspectives On Stereotypes, Marginalisation and Empowerment that “the workplace is a microcosm of the society at large, which in turn is a product of centuries of social conditioning. These perceptions underline gender stereotypes and impede women’s careers.” ‘CONFIDENCE AND COURAGE’ Mumbai-based Rajani Pandit, 57, has never been deterred by the fact that the world of detectives and private investigators remains largely male dominated, not just in India but internationally. In fact, a newspaper refused to advertise her new detective agency, refusing to believe that a woman would ever choose an investigative career. Dressed simply in a traditional shalwar kameez, with her hair in a simple plait, India’s first female private investigator said she was always “driven by a pursuit or search for the truth”. This was the case right from the age of 11, when Pandit “probed” a gift to her family from a relative that turned out to be a knock-off of a famous brand. When she was later employed as an office clerk, she helped a colleague solve a case of household theft – further whetting her appetite for investigative work. In Kamala Harris’ ancestral India home, villagers celebrate as they wake up to her US election victory She started her agency, Rajani Pandit Detective Services, in 1991. With a team of 20 people, Pandit has solved more than 80,000 cases, from murders to philandering spouses and even corporate espionage. “A clear brain, confidence and courage, integrity and a dogged pursuit of truth is what it takes to succeed in this field,” Pandit said. “Though I have encountered a lot of misogyny, I have also found that clients trust a woman detective more easily.” Airport firefighting, a job that needs alertness as well as physical and mental strength, is another workspace that is lagging in gender diversity. It was only in 2018 that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) allowed women to apply for the job. Taniya Saniyal, 28, who has a postgraduate degree in botany and is also a trained dancer, was hired as the first female firefighter by the AAI that year. “I come from a middle class Bengali family in Kolkata, [we were] trained in the creative pursuits and were not really sporty,” she said. “I just applied to an advertisement in the newspaper, because it looked different from other career options, and the path less travelled always appealed to me.” Tanya had to crack the written, medical, physical and driving tests, which included sprinting 100 metres in 20 seconds, climbing a rope, a ladder, and lifting 40kg. “When I broke the news to my parents, they were shocked, but also proud and supportive of me. I had to undergo rigorous training for five months at the Fire Training Centre in New Delhi, after being selected. I was the only woman … The days were intense with all kinds of exercises, drills and simulations. I found my trainers and colleagues extremely supportive and friendly.” She said one of the most pivotal parts of her job was the lightning speed with which the team had to head into a crisis. “If a plane catches fire, it must be doused within 2 minutes and 18 seconds. As the response time is very short, aviation firefighting requires special skills and equipment.” Tanya now trains men and women to be firefighters at the Fire Service Training Centre in Kolkata, and said her grandmother was her biggest role model. “Unfortunately she passed away during my training period, and could not see me qualify,” she said, though she emphasises that she still looks up to her grandmother as someone who managed a government job, looked after the family and was always supportive of her.