1 July 2021. “Serious singer or social scientist?” asks the New Zealand newspaper Devonport Flagstaff in an interview with Nilima Chowdhury. After studying psychology in Berlin, Nilima Chowdhury tried to establish herself as a singer/songwriter for several years, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. After three years in Canada, Chowdhury returned to Berlin and participated in the Voice of Germany casting show in 2013. She made it into the live shows but realised that she did not want to play along any longer when it came to self-marketing in the music industry: “As a woman, you’re confronted with sexist remarks and abuse in the music industry. Nobody appreciates you as an artist in her own right or as the creative head of a band,” says Chowdhury.
After her performance in the casting show, Nilima Chowdhury decided to turn to science. Together with her New Zealand husband – a fine artist she had got to know in Berlin – she moved to New Zealand in 2014.
Keeping the system going
The Make-it-work woman – this is the title of Chowdhury’s thesis, for which she obtained her PhD degree from the University of Auckland in 2020. This work examines how women deal with difficult situations and depression in the workplace. The research reveals that women often interpret structural problems as individual ones and thus locate the blame and fault in themselves. The aim seems to be, above all, to function properly again in the neoliberal system. According to Chowdhury, coping strategies such as perfectionism and the suppression of certain feelings such as anger or assertiveness aimed at satisfying gender norms can have a negative impact on women’s mental wellbeing.
Bracing oneself against the force of nature
Since mid-2020, Chowdhury and her family have been living in Europe again where she is currently conducting the postdoc study “Turn the Tide” at the University of St. Gallen. For this project, the social scientist interviewed companies in New Zealand and Switzerland about gender inequality. The aim is to initiate processes of change through workshops and coaching sessions. Chowdhury maintains that the responsibility for change should not be placed on women alone. For cultural change to occur, men also need to be involved. She is convinced that a purely analytical approach would fail because gender norms are lived through deep-seated emotional patterns. “Implicit habits and prejudices must first of all be made conscious. Therefore I like to use unconventional, creative methods in my workshops in order to facilitate change through emotions and the body.
Executives must be role models for change
The working world is still characterised by male principles such as hierarchy, competition and power. “Values with feminine connotations, such as empathy, flat hierarchies and collaboration must be upvalued. Also, care work, which is predominantly done by women without payment, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society.” Organisational change is needed for qualities associated with femininity to be more appreciated. “Executives must be role models in this: if women and men at the management level change their behaviour by displaying vulnerability and acknowledging problems or mistakes, this may incite a cultural change. The focus is on training executive staff,” says the psychologist.
Science and art inspire each other
Besides research, music continues to play a central role in Nilima Chowdhury’s life. For Chowdhury, science and art are not two separate spheres. Research and music inspire each other: “General life experiences and life questions influence my research; I can’t separate that. I apply science to my life, for example when it comes to a conscious use of language.” Experiences from the music industry are incorporated in her work as a gender researcher, whether they are creative experiences or experiences of sexism.
Hybrid juxtapositions are something that Nilima Chowdhury doesn’t only know from research and music: having grown up in Bonn with an Indian father and a Polish mother, her origins always left her with a feeling of not belonging and of hovering between different worlds. Hybridity also pervades her musical style, she says with a smile. Her songs and her guitar and piano playing style are influenced by classical music and jazz, but also by oriental and South American music. She describes her songs as “melancholy ballads”, but she doesn’t want to commit herself to a particular genre.
Reconciling research and music isn’t always easy, says Nilima Chowdhury. There is still this idea that only commercial success legitimises an activity and that professionalism means working full time. “For me, science and art complement each other. Research, too, is a creative process, driven by curiosity.”
Thus, for Nilima Chowdhury, the answer to the question asked at the beginning is: “Serious singer and social scientist!”
Text: Sabrina Rohner