Women in Engineering
Breaking Myths and Stereotypes
“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” — Marie Curie.
It was almost half a century back in 1974, that I took admission in REC Calicut. Main reason for my taking up Engineering was my passion for Mathematics and Physics, my love for solving problems and Logic, and probably genes of my Dad who was a Mechanical Engineer. Even though my mother dreamt of her children becoming doctors, I was more attuned to Engineering like my younger sister and brother who also graduated from REC Calicut. Only one brother showed interest in Medicine, who went on to become a Doctor and another a Chartered Accountant.
As we all are aware, the strength of ladies doing Engineering in those days was less than 5 percent. We had 9 ladies in our batch comprising of 239 students. I started my career at Bharat Petroleum, where I became the first lady engineer recruited by the organization. I have written about my entry and start of my journey as an electrical engineer in the book “Skyrocket to New Heights” authored by me (which went on to become a best seller book in the International Market). I was the first and only lady engineer amongst 650+men, working in the Refinery for few years, till more women engineers were recruited.
Soon after joining, I realized that I had to toil twice as hard to be treated on par with men, and had to put in thrice the effort of any man to make my job visible and recognized. Today when I look back, I am able to find pointers to the gender stereotyping views held by the patriarchal society prevalent then and to a certain extent even now. In a way I am grateful for the same, as, but for the same, I may not have worked so hard to reach where I find myself today. Few of the stereotyping views still hold water, even after 4 decades, though few women have been able to break the glass ceiling.
As there were no peers, I did not have any anybody to guide me, to follow, or to relate to. But one thing that I was determined to, was that, I will definitely not make any move which will make the path difficult for other ladies to get an entry into this industry. Probably most of the pioneering initiatives that I could manage to implement, or the awards that I could win were a result of this determination, and sincerity that I displayed in the conceptualization and execution of my projects. I can also say that I was lucky to get few plum assignments, blessings from my parents, support from my teams, and the trust of my superiors, as I went on proving myself diligently.
Role of a woman in the patriarchal society: Even a child can grow up to be a biased individual if the seeds of gender bias are sown from childhood. Several theories of prejudice like gender bias, Horn or Halo effect, Role congruity theory, has made it hard for women, specifically for women engineers to rise and break the glass ceiling. The world of engineering is perceived as a male dominated bastion. When it comes to picking a stream such as civil, mechanical and electrical, girls come across statements such as “this field is not for you”. I think, that all of these influence our lives, impact our choice of career and the stereotyping of roles to be performed by women in general.
There are a lot of myths surrounding the role of women in the industry particularly in the engineering profession. Let me now throw some light on the stereotyping that existed, and how I could break some of them or is being overcome by other women engineers now.
a. Women should dress and behave in a specific manner: The mere thought that an engineer should look, dress and behave in a certain way, has spoiled chances for women who could have been equally qualified and capable to take up such roles. Let me quote an instance from my life. During the earlier days when I working in the Project department I had once asked my counterpart in the execution department to carry out a job as per the contract specs and design. I was told to behave lady like, be polite and submissive while speaking. At that time, being new to the industry, I could not speak up, affecting my confidence in a big way. I would hesitate to speak, thinking twice before speaking, which I overcame by working on myself.
b. Women don’t have the right attitude to work, & they bring up personal issues: Another view held by many are that women lack the proper attitude to carry on in the Engineering field. They attribute it to few irritants like ‘taking too many leaves, chit chatting, gossiping, raising too many personal issues” and so on as the ones which women generally come up with. But I have found this to be totally out of place, as I have seen that, this is not dependent on the gender but the attitude of the concerned individual. Sincere and committed individuals, be it a man or a woman would be serious about their tasks and take it to conclusion. In fact, on observing, I have found this to be the other way round. As women engineers are in a minority, even a single lapse on their part at any point in time is blown up, making it prominently visible to everybody. In my case, I was very careful and did not bring up any personal issues, and rarely took leaves.
c. Women leave the job after marriage, & for raising family: Normally people often think that a woman should leave her job and sit at home and tend to the family after getting married. Some even tell the bride-to-be that she cannot work after she is married or after she begets children. So, many career conscious women have chosen to remain unmarried to satisfy their dreams of a fulfilling career, and others have chosen to leave their jobs after marriage. As this is applicable to any career, why chose engineering to be singled out. Raising children can be a challenge for anybody pursuing a demanding career, but with supportive family, supportive employers and the right infrastructure, there is no reason why it should be harder within the world of engineering. Once you establish credibility in your chosen field, this can be overcome easily. In my life I faced this dilemma when my children were 3 years and 1-year-old respectively. As there were no crèche and no child care facilities existing during the early 80s, I had no option, but to leave them with my parents who could not move out from Calicut. When I could no more bear the separation from children, I decided to quit, but a very senior GM asked me to think over. He told me that as I was extremely good in my deliverables, and he saw a bright future for me, I should reconsider my decision. He stated to me that children would have grown up within the next 2 to 3 years, but I would have lost the opportunity for ever. He also showed me the way forward where I could take leave combining them with holidays or weekly offs and visit them. This was not so easy as there was no air connectivity, but I held on and am glad that I heeded to his advice. After attaining the age of 7 and 5 my children became latchkey children who came back home, opened the door and learnt to be responsible. Here I would like to mention that a supportive husband, supportive employer / boss do make a difference. And. as a female boss, I can say that I have been very supportive of female engineers who worked under me in my teams. There are many instances to narrate, but time and scope do not permit my writing about these.
d. Women are not ready to do field work: In India, we still like to believe that women do not enjoy working in the field which is not correct. Once, when I was handling design activities in Projects, I had to challenge my superiors, to either post me to the field, or remove the statement that that I cannot be posted to the field, from my appraisal. I was posted to the execution set up for a period of 6 weeks, on a trial basis. Not only could I complete execution and commissioning of the 42 projects pending due to various issues, during the 6 weeks that I was posted to field duty, but I could also obviate this dilemma forever. Now, with changing times, we have witnessed women taking up a lot of challenging roles in Defense, Aeronautics, Space and so on which nullifies this myth.
e. Women are not willing to work beyond office hours: I am sure most of us would have gone through these situations, where we are expected to work after our normal working hours. I have had to work beyond office hours, so many times, both when I was handling electrical projects, or Information System related projects (hardware, networking ERP, software projects). When you have to commission the switchgear or transfer from one bus to another, you need to execute them according to a plan taking advantage of the non-peak hours. (This is true for Software projects too, where you chose the non-peak hours for implementation). As a committed and disciplined engineer, we are required to plan the outage and commissioning meticulously without hampering the normal activities. But it may so happen that at that instance a break down or a fire or some other emergency may occur, requiring you to postpone the activity, before clearances can be given. In fact, once I had to wait till 8 PM to get the required clearance, as a fire broke out in one of the plants which had to be put off before I could get the clearance which upset my schedule of commissioning. Under normal conditions is there a need for one to stay back for regular jobs, if they are planned and expected to be completed within the time schedules? The general excuse for denying the raise for women engineers, are that they will not stay back as they may have to rush back for their domestic duties, which is totally baseless.
f. Women are reluctant to attend to duty/ calls in the night: Let me share another incident, which happened when I was interviewed for the graduate trainee engineer post at refinery of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. The panel had eminent senior leaders from HR, Training and Operations. After the technical round of questions to which I could answer very well, came the one question, running topmost in their minds. ‘Ok Gita, you realize that you being an engineer, will have to be posted to the plants, where you can expect breakdowns any time including in the night. How will you handle them?’. As I was quite bold, my answer was quite simple. ‘Of course I will attend to them? As for any other engineers, I am sure, you will be providing a vehicle to commute, and I will make use of that and attend to them’. During those days’, the factory rules did not permit ladies to stay beyond 6 PM. It’s another matter that I worked in shutdowns which lasted from 7.45 Am to 7.45 Pm for one or 2 months continuously without a break, as well as attended to many issues in the night when the situation demanded the same of me. These experiences prepared me to have more grit and determination, and be persevering for whatever I wanted to achieve in life.
g. Women are physically weak / their endurance; capabilities are questionable: Women are still seen as the physically weaker gender even though they have already proved themselves to be capable of doing much more than what is normal. One of the biggest myths of this profession is that you have to be big and strong to work in these sectors which is factually not correct. Rather than strength, foresight, commitment and imagination are required for making a success of it. May be we need to spread the word around that being an engineer is more of brain than brawn. Its rather funny, that many times when I have mentioned that I am an electrical engineer, the first question to be asked to me was, do you know to change the bulb, fix the switch and so on. I am sure the lady engineers may resonate with this. At one instance, one electrician came up with an issue of some controls in the overhead crane. Immediately, I realized that I was being challenged to go up the ladder to reach the control gears located on the bridge of the overhead crane in the workshop. Without batting my eyelid, I rose to reach the narrow straight ladder in the workshop and started climbing up. He rushed back and told me that he has already located the issue and could now resolve it.
h. Women are timid and can’t assert: Historically, female engineers might have struggled to hold their own in a room full of male colleagues. This was the case with me. I was the only female in the Project review meetings held each month during my earlier tenure. Those days’ restrictions were not there on smoking within the rooms. So I would sit next to a smoker, closing my nose, unable to bear the cigarette stench and unable to speak out, where as they would smoke and keep their burning cigarettes on the ashtray kept between us. This was not because I was timid, but probably because, I did not want to hurt them. Later I learned to sit away from the smokers. In the later years, I have attended many coordination meetings and senior level executive meetings where I was bereft of female company but I had no difficulty in asserting, speaking out and being heard. Today we can see many women engineers having the right attitude, the right confidence and with the right opinions who are leading, speaking out and being heard. But, there may also have been few stray occasions, wherein a male colleague would have been unfairly promoted or given a pay rise, because it was assumed that male engineers were more assertive than us females.
i. Women are not good at Science, Technology, Engineering and or Mathematics (STEM): This is a myth which has no valid standing. Not anymore. If we keep track of the performances of girls, we can observe that girls are achieving higher grades across nearly all STEM GCSE subjects. Even though we see the proportion of girls pursuing these subjects dropping off, the cultural norms and other factors are to be blamed rather than the lack of ability.
j. Women excel at soft skills, not technical ones: How can one say that technical ability is defined by gender. This stereotypical myth, is absurd and absolutely not true. Does not an engineer, whether he is a man or woman require these soft skills? In fact, this should be seen as an added advantage, favorable to the woman engineers. You can’t be a successful engineer without communicating effectively with clients and colleagues, managing teams and remaining nimble, adaptable and effective. Self-awareness, adaptability, empathy, self-discipline, self-control, ability to listen, charm, known as soft skills are present more in women which makes them better leaders. In fact, these qualities helped me in my interactions with my teams, and getting each member to perform to their best potential.
k. Women don’t look like Engineers: Female engineers often get told that they don’t “look” like an engineer. If you work in an office you may not be covered in grease or oil, or be wearing boiler suits. When I was working in the field as engineer in charge of the electrical workshop, I was expected to wear pants, overalls, safety shoes and wear hard hat when moving around within the plants, having rotating machinery or where oil spillovers could be present to avoid accidents. But in an industry with such a vast array of roles from design and engineering, computer software, spacecraft design, artificial engineering, nanotechnology how should an engineer look like? Should she be always in Pants/Overalls? I don’t think so. Once a client wanted to meet me, the Project Manager for a discussion of the project. After fixing the appointment with my secretary, he came to my cabin and knocked. On seeing me, and assuming me to be the secretary he asked me, as to where he could locate the Project Manager? Of course, he apologized profusely after realizing his folly. In my opinion, we need to be dressed for the job, which we are supposed to handle, unless, there are some protocols to be followed as specified by the organization, you are working for.
Finally my take on this
Why are we bent on typecasting ladies , stereotyping roles and situations when it is other way round ?
Can we not realize that women can bring in different perspectives and new ideas while designing & executing projects? These can have a huge positive impact in ensuring aesthetically appealing structures.
There have been remarkable stories about ordinary women breaking all barriers and conquering stereotypes to emerge as true winners and extraordinary role models. At present there is no field that women have not invaded. Women have the amazing ability to spot any possible opportunities and give them life. I can say with conviction, that women are more than capable of heading projects, departments, and companies within the engineering sector.
History has proved time and again that women have reached pinnacles in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math’s. Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman in history to win two Nobel prizes for her contributions to science, was so passionate towards unraveling radioactivity that she ultimately sacrificed her life. The first computer programmer was a woman Mathematician, Lady Ada Lovelace. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 by the first field woman engineer Emily Warren Roebling. She took over her husband Washington Roebling’s responsibilities as a chief engineer when he became bedridden due to illness.
Today there are many business women and Technologists leading and rewriting history. Marisa Mayer was the president and CEO of Yahoo! between 2012 and 2017. Mary Teresa Barra has held the CEO position at General Motors Company since 2014. There are many like them including Tessy Thomas, Padmshree Warrior and many others who have carved a niche for themselves.
It is sad to see people stereotyping engineering as a man’s job. Be it a desk job or the field, women are thriving. The tag of, ‘Man’s job’ should not deter any woman from not pursuing engineering if that is their passion. All one needs is a conviction and ability to handle mental and physical pressure which is a part of any engineering job. It clearly does not matter, if it is going to be difficult or what people are going to think about it. If your dream is to become an engineer, follow it and reach for the stars! The key to success is persistence.
We also need to educate parents that engineering is a great career for everyone. Hugely diverse and exciting sector with amazing opportunities are available to women.
Even though my jobs and circumstances were not so easy, I have never taken them as obstacles, but treated them as opportunities and strived hard to accomplish them. When women support each other, incredible things happen! So as women leaders, my request to all is to let us help and mentor other women engineers who enter the industry with dreams in their eyes, by showing them the right direction.
Let us all try to break the stereotype and encourage women engineers to give wings to their dreams.
I would appreciate it, if engineers reading this send me their perspectives from their experience. If they have found any more stereotyping that I have missed, I would love to hear from you, and add them to this list. I would also like to appreciate you , in case you have encouraged your daughters to pursue Engineering and work in the plants.
My email id for communication is firstname.lastname@example.org and my website is https://gitaramachandran.com/
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