Meet Reena Patel: Author, Diplomat, GeographerAugust 12, 2010
If you’re like many employed women in the United States today, you’re working a day-shift job. You’re at work by 9, and you leave by 5. Occasionally, to stop the tower of papers piled on your desk from toppling over, you’ll put in an extra hour or two, but rarely will you have to leave home for work before sunrise or return after sunset.
Consider what it would be like to have the same job with greater benefits and higher pay, yet be asked to work from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and live in a society that considered it wrong, perhaps immoral, for women to be away from home at night. The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “The loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of matters.” Sagan might have been referring to the cosmos, but after speaking with Reena Patel, author, diplomat, geographer, and 2008 AAUW American Fellow, I believe the loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of human lives.
In 2003, Reena Patel learned that female employees working the night shift in India’s call centers faced the risk of being pulled over by police and accused of prostitution. The societal backlash toward women, despite the increased income and education associated with call center employment, drove Patel into a five-year research project that resulted in the publication of her first book, Working the Night Shift: Women in India’s Call Center Industry.
In her book, Patel encourages readers to explore the dynamic interaction between space, time, and gender. How does a low-paying, day-shift job in the U.S. call center industry, which employs mostly women, become a high-paying, night shift job in India’s call center industry, which employs mostly men? What challenges and opportunities do female employees in India’s call centers encounter in their everyday lives?
Patel, a feminist scholar, has had the opportunity to work with women in different cultural settings and contexts. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, working on an IT development project funded by USAID. Her experience there revived her passion for women’s issues and propelled her to start thinking about development and gender.
With renewed energy and a clearer vision for what she wanted to do, Patel returned to the United States and decided to pursue a master’s degree in technology at Arizona State University after being out of school for eight years. Those eight years, she says, are years she’s grateful for, as they gave her space and time to gain clarity on what she wanted.
Once her master’s was completed, she pursued a doctorate in geography with a portfolio in women’s and gender studies from the University of Texas, Austin. Her book is the final manuscript of her research that was funded in part by AAUW. The AAUW fellowship allowed her to hire an editor who worked to make Patel’s book more accessible to the general public, thereby helping Patel’s mission to get more people thinking critically about the role of geography in their lives.
The trip to Ghana also ignited Patel’s interest in foreign service. Today, she works as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Spain, drafting reports on international religious freedom and human rights. It’s a field she thoroughly enjoys and one she hopes to remain in, a field she came to by following her own advice: “Get clear on what you want.”
This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Manka Banda. Manka is a junior at the University of Maryland, majoring in general biology and global health studies with a minor in international development and conflict management.