Women and Engineering: The “Deadly” Combination

Posted By vLEAD

“I’m not saying you can’t. But, engineering is more suited for boys, you know?”

“You’re taking engineering? You must be a tomboy!”

“It’s easier for the boys because they have more practical knowledge.”

We come across such remarks very often in our lives. These remarks have traveled a long way from our forefathers to our immediate friends and family. We brush away the thought without thinking twice about how much of it rings true.

What comes to most of our minds when we think of an engineer? A well-paid, unsociable nerd with a boring desk job? Let’s redefine that.

An engineer is an innovator who solves real world problems. They design and construct products by applying their scientific knowledge. They strive to find the most efficient solution to make lives easier.

Do you believe that all of this is a man’s territory? Here we tap into some popular engineering myths we come across and separate fact from fiction.

Misconceptions about women and engineering

Men naturally perform better than women in engineering:

Do they really?

The International Student Assessment (Pisa) took identical tests on maths and reading on 276,165 15-year-olds from 40 countries. It was found that the average of girls’ maths scores were 2% (10.5 points) lower than the average of boys.

But interestingly, this difference varied by country. While boys in Turkey outperformed girls by 22.6 points, Iceland saw girls outperforming boys by 14.5 points.

It was found that countries that are more gender neutral saw the gender gap almost disappearing, while it widened in the other nations. This clearly points to the fact that the gender gap that we see is cultural rather than biological.

So no, men do not have inborn abilities to excel in the fields of science and technology. It’s all in our heads.

Soft skills suit women more than technical ones:

It is widely believed that women have better soft skills than men. This could again be a result of a particular cultural upbringing. Whether the belief is true or not, this in no way affects a woman’s ability in the technical field.

We’ve already busted the myth of men being better problem solvers by birth. What does or does not suit a person is not decided by their gender, but their interest. And if you are good with soft skills, good for you, because they are much needed in engineering too.

This is again an age-old idea that has been passed on from person to person. Keep in mind that your profession, your interests, and your skills are not defined by your gender.

Women engineers are more like a man:

This is a blatant lie. Being an engineer has nothing to do with being ‘manly’.

A woman engineer does not mean that she is an introverted nerd who never wears makeup. It does not mean that she loves to hang out with dudes more than girls, or that she is a tomboy.

The movement in social media ‘I Look Like an Engineer’ further proved this point. This campaign took birth when people claimed that Isis Anchalee, a full-stack engineer, looked nothing like an engineer in the ad she featured in for her software company.

No, you don’t need to be any less of a woman to be an engineer. The profession is not tailor-made for men. You can carry all your traits with pride and equally excel out there.

Women are not as competent as male engineers:

If you are incompetent, that is because you lack in confidence. Your lack of confidence could be because of a myriad reasons, none of which concerns your gender.

Now, if you’re a woman, you could lack in confidence by ‘thinking’ that women can’t do better in the field, and thus become incompetent. It is the thought process that is affecting you, not the gender you were born in.

Women can’t have a family when in this field:

Work-life balance is a problem one faces in every career, and this one isn’t any different. Being in engineering does not mean that it isn’t possible to have a family.

Today, more companies are becoming family-friendly by offering flexible hours, workplace daycare, and holidays to spend time with the family. There are plenty of women with a family who’re faring well at work.

Women can’t occupy top positions in engineering:

If you’re one of the people who believe that women can’t take top positions in engineering, the following stories of women engineers might just change your mind.

Women Engineers in Leadership Positions

In her final year of mechanical engineering, Priya Subramaniam was sitting for yet another placement interview.  The job profile said factory line production management, which seemed to suit her. However, her interviewer decided to give her a piece of advice.

“You’re a girl. Managing a factory is not something you can do. You should switch your career to a field where you can get a job that a girl can handle.” he’d said.

She didn’t get that job that day. But she also did not listen to that man.

Twenty years since then, today she holds the position of Vice President of Apple’s iphone operations, overseeing Apple’s massive supply chain for manufacturing iPhones.

Meanwhile in the US, when Aanchal Gupta got a call from Skype for a security lead role, she knew that it had to be a mistake. Getting on to the phone interview, the first thing she told the hiring manager was this-

“I’m not the right fit for this job, this is a mistake on the recruiter’s part.”

Only it wasn’t. They insisted on conducting the interview and she had to give in. A team visiting from Europe met with her, and to her surprise, she got the offer. But Aanchal was still convinced it wasn’t a job she could do.

She declined the offer, only to be pressed further by them. They even agreed to meet with her face to face on demand if that could change her mind.  

She finally took the job and went on to become her hiring manager’s successor. As the Director of Security at Facebook, today she leads a global team that assesses the security risks across Facebook.

Read her full story here

Prachi Gupta was six years old when she stumbled upon the drawing program Lego. That was the beginning of her life long association with computers. She grew up playing plenty of computer games and even founded a computer club in her school.

“ I got interested in computers because they were introduced to me as a fun thing.” she says.

The fun part of it luckily never died out for her, even today as she stands as a Director of Engineering at LinkedIn.

While society told Priya to back off from a male dominated career, Aanchal restrained herself from climbing the ladder due to lack of confidence.

These are examples of social barriers that keep women from the field of technology. But in spite of these barriers, these women reached the positions that they deserved.

There are myriads of glorious stories of women engineers who’ve made a mark in the field. There’s Reshma Shetty, who co-founded Ginko Bioworks the Biotech company, Jayshree Ullal, the CEO of Arista Networks, Anjul Bhambri, Vice President of Cloud Platform Engineering at Adobe, so on and so forth.  

These Indian women engineers along with all the others unlisted here have been proving time and again that engineering isn’t a job that only men can handle.

This gives us a notion that India’s engineering field has a remarkable representation of women. But, there is a significant gender gap in the field we cannot ignore.

Statistics of women engineers in India

The Belong survey claims that there is one woman engineer against every three men engineers in India, which accounts for all of 26% of women in engineering roles. That’s not a lot.

It seems that there is a low percentage of girls early on from the entrance exams for engineering. In 2018, out of 11.35 lakh students who registered for JEE Mains, approximately 76% were boys.

When it comes to undergraduate engineering courses, Women’s Engineering Society says that around 30% are females in India. Although the ratio is relatively better here when compared to the western countries like UK and US, it is still something we need to work on.

The numbers can imply two things – that there is either a lack of support for women in the stream, or a lack of interest in girls for it.

CBSE has taken it upon itself to encourage more women into the field. Their project Udaan, launched for the very purpose, provides free of cost resources for girl students studying in class XI and XII to prepare for engineering entrance exams.

The Indian Girls Code initiative by Robotix inspires young girls to tap into the realm of coding and robotics. Several other measures have also been taken to uplift girls into engineering.

The problem at hand, however, is to combat the prevalent perceptions about gender roles in the field.

Changing the Perspective

How can we show the girls that engineering is not a boy’s domain? How do we instill in them an interest in the field?

Sitting in a classroom populated with boys, Debbie Sterling always felt that she did not fit in. Working as an engineer years later, she was adamant to find out why very few girls opted for engineering.

From her extensive research, she figured that the problem started right from the age where girls were given barbies and boys lego blocks to play with. She decided that this had to change.

Thus was born GoldieBlox, an interactive toy for girls custom-made to get them interested in engineering. Debbie wanted girls to explore things beyond their dolls, and here was a way.

The exposure kids get at a very young age significantly affects their interests as they grow. We saw how Prachi Gupta was drawn to computers as a kid. Not once did she think of the field being male dominated or something that was not for girls.

It is important to understand that there are no hard and fast rules about what a particular gender can or cannot do.

We need to teach our little girls that there’s no demarcation between them and the boys when it comes to what they can play with, what they can like, and what they can become in the future.

Why more women should take up this profession

If it ever occured to you why we must take all this trouble to get more women into engineering, here’s why.

We defined engineers as problem solvers, finding solutions to real world problems to make our lives easier. These problems are faced by the human population of which nearly fifty percent are women. Which is why we need them in the field.

A woman is more likely to raise problems faced by them and find solutions to it than a man. For instance, a man would probably oversee the need to make seatbelts adapting to pregnant women while a woman wouldn’t.

Having women in the field thus solves more problems and increases productivity. In fact, the work field ought to have representatives from diverse sections in order to avoid an imbalance in the kind of solutions/research undertaken.

Gender neutrality kept aside, engineering deals with an exciting range of topics and provides good job security. That should be reason enough to follow this profession, whatever your gender be.

Future of women in Engineering

Studies have shown us that girls are definitely at a disadvantage. But the disadvantage does not concern their ability, but rather the societal beliefs and ideas they grow up in.

We see a lot more female faces in the engineering industry today than we did a decade ago. They’re the very reason that workplaces today have become more welcome to women than earlier.

The near future sees great potential for women in engineering with the fall of gender stereotypes. The day we get past the social stigma of male domination in the field, the so called ‘deadly’ combination of women and engineering will transcend from being an exception to the norm.

Our duty remains to strive towards that day as fast as we can.

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