Indian-American Women Break Through


On International Women’s Day March 8, Indian-American women can celebrate their achievements and step up efforts to end gender inequality

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Randhawa Haley (Photo: Twitter)

They have soared above the heavens into space; they advise a president and lead the nation on international affairs. For their beliefs, they also stand up to a president. They lead a multi-billion dollar iconic U.S. company. They work for the rights of the exploited and the discriminated.

They are the Indian-American women who have shattered glass ceilings, all within a generation, and as the world celebrates the International Women’s Day on March 8 they show the power and capabilities of women in a nation where #MeToo highlights anew the struggles women face daily.

At the national level today, one of President Donald Trump’s closest advisors is Indian-American Nikki Haley, the nation’s ambassador to the United Nations, and the first person from the community to be appointed to a cabinet-level position in the history of this country. She is considered future presidential material as is Senator Kamala Harris, D-California, former attorney general of California, and now a leader in the #MeToo movement. Seema Verma, administrator of the national Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is on the frontlines of bringing about change in the healthcare system.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, D-California, gestures while addressing tens of thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington Feb. 21, 2017. (Photo: Facebook)

Some of the loudest voices for change on Capitol Hill, emanate from Indian-American lawmakers like Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, the first Indian-American woman to be elected to the House, and Sen. Harris, the first from the community to be in the U.S. Senate.

At the local and grassroots level, we have Bhairavi Desai, who founded and leads the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance (NYCTWA); and Saru Jayaraman, founder of ROCUnited, the organization for restaurant workers gained national status bringing the plight of blue-collar women to the fore in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements against sexual harassment at the Golden Globes film awards event; And in a class of her own is astronaut Sunita Williams, a veteran of two space missions, who formerly held the records for most spacewalks by a woman (seven) and most amount of time spent by a woman on walking in space. She is in training to fly the first test-flights of commercially built spacecraft that Boeing is building.

Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, speaking at a Feb. 6, vigil in New York City, held to honor a taxi worker who committed suicide. She is surrounded by members of NYTWA. (Photo courtesy Bhairavi Desai, NYTWA)

Indian-American women sit shoulder-to-shoulder with men in boardrooms and multinational corporations – PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, or U.S.-India Business Council’s president Nisha Desai Biswal, or Vanita Gupta, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the largest civil rights organization in the country; and Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, which is expanding by leaps and bounds around the country; and not least of all, those who make America laugh as stand-up comics and entertainers, like Mindy Kaling of The Mindy Project.

Breaking the National Glass Ceiling

Corporate World

  • Indra Nooyi – Chairman and CEO PepsiCo
  • Padmasree Warrior – CEO of NIO US
  • Revathi Advaithi – COO, Electrical Sector, Eaton Corporation


  • Nikki Haley – UN Ambassador
  • Seema Verma – administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
  • Kamala Harris, Senator from California
  • Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman from Washington State
  • Kshama Sawant – Socialist city council member, Seattle, Washington
  • Harmeet Dhillon —  former vice chairman of the California Republican Party, and the National Committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California.

Activists/Civil Rights

  • Bhairavi Desai – New York Taxi Workers Alliance
  • Vanita Gupta – Biggest civil rights organization, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
  • Saru Jayaraman – RocUnited, workers in the fast-food industry

Science/Academic/Think Tank

  • Sunita Williams, astronaut
  • Renu Khator – Chancellor of Houston University system
  • Neera Tanden – head of think tank- Center for American Progress
  • Nisha Desai-Biswal – president of the U.S.-India Business Council
  • Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code

Entertainment Industry

  • Mindy Kaling – The Mindy Project, movies
  • Nicky Minaj, rapper
  • Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef, and author
  • Hannah Simone, actress and star in upcoming remake of “Greatest American Superhero”
  • Radhika Jones — Editor-in-Chief, Vanity Fair
  • Aparna Nancherla – standup comedian
  • Alington Mitra – Harvard grad who decided to become a stand up comedian
  • Dhaya Lakshminarayanan – former venture capitalist turned standup comedian

It’s “a unique combination of access to higher education and a long history of gender activism has made it possible for certain groups of Indian women to use immigration as a way to negotiate and challenge entrenched expectations about women’s careers and life choices,” according to two professors who have studied the change. In their book,  Indian Immigrant Women and Work: The American Experience, Ramya M. Vijaya, professor of economics at Stockton University, New Jersey, and Bidisha Biswas, professor of political science at Western Washington University, say they see Indian women in America as “agents of change through everyday choices.”


Today’s young Indian-American women stand on the shoulders of those who helped build a family and social networks in which they could thrive. Just as an earlier generation of women negotiated in the workplace, and took on the workload at home, so the generation they helped bring up stands on the base they built.

Indian-origin women in America cover a vast canvas – those who came alone and those who came with husbands, noted Biswas in an interview with News India Times. Her book’s focus is on professional, independent women who came to this country to further their careers. “Most of them were from upper castes, well educated, and we acknowledge that bias – but they did push the boundaries of expectations,” Biswas says.

Harmeet Dhillon, National Committeewoman representing California on the Republican National Committee, points to the complexity of lives led by Indian women in America. “I can’t generalize about them,” Dhillon told News India Times, in terms of their achievements and problems. But overall, Indian women who have come to this country “have been able to participate in a broad range of opportunities, certainly more than in India,” Dhillon said. While she has faced some discrimination for instance, Dhillon says, “It is more because I am a woman than that I am Indian-American. I feel like any other American woman.”

“One of the amazing things about these women leading today — they are leading much broader types of groups,” says Seema Nanda, executive vice president and COO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “This generation is seeing the interconnect – whether it is through the lens of workers, women, or LGBTQ community,” Nanda told News India Times. “What’s really amazing about the #MeToo movement is that there were things that weren’t even acknowledged, were private and accepted. And in a very short period a hashtag has turned into a movement,” said Nanda. “Having this movement where women can tell their stories is very important, but also how many are not able to – such as farm workers, janitors … It is incumbent upon us to bring those voices out,” Nanda said.

“We are facing an unprecedented attack on our civil and human rights,” Nanda contends, but at the same time broad coalitions are being formed where Indian-American organizations like Hindu American Foundation and South Asian Americans Leading Together, are joining with women, labor and African American groups.

That engagement with the mainstream is a result of benefiting from movements in both India and the U.S., over the last 50 to 100 years, according to Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation. “We have benefited from the Indian freedom struggle and the Suffrage movement in the U.S.,” including the feminist movement, Shukla told News India Times.

Asked how she felt as an Indian-American woman, Nanda said, “I feel passionate about 2018. We have a lot of fights on our hands. But I’m an optimist that we will keep fighting and that this country will create an America as good as our ideals.”

“It’s a largely positive moment for Indian-American women,” said Shukla. “More and more of us are getting educated, topping our class in schools and colleges. Indian women are part of a larger demographic shift,” she said, adding, “This is a good time to be an Indian woman because we bring a unique approach to pressing issues of our time and to society as a whole.”

 (Also see related story at