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As A Girl At 17, The Decision To Be An Engineer Seemed Bold, But 2 Years Into Work…

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By Susmita Abani:

It’s my penultimate week of working in a motorway maintenance office. I rise from my desk to stretch my legs and smile at one of our senior staff as he enters the room and stands at the door. “Who’s the graduate that’ll be replacin’ ya, Su?” he asks. As I respond with a name, his smile quickly becomes a grimace. “Another girl?” he complains in jest, and I laugh along, ignoring the fury bubbling in my chest.

women engineers

As a 17-year-old high school graduate, I felt my decision to pursue studies in engineering was admirable and bold. Defying the glass ceiling, and stereotypes alleging women are incapable of excelling in technical fields, I pushed through my degree and entered the workforce by landing a position in one of Australia’s largest construction companies. In two short years, the novelty had mostly shattered.

It’s no secret the engineering demographic world-wide is heavily skewed towards men. According to an Engineers Australia report from 2012, 14% of accepted engineering positions at university comprised of women and only 10.7% of the engineering workforce were female. An interesting research from the United States showed poor retention of female staff in the industry, with nearly 40% withdrawing from the field following tertiary education. The justifications cited for these departures included “organizational climate, characterised by non-supportive supervisors or co-workers and general incivility… [also] working conditions, like frequent travel, lack of advancement opportunities or low salary.”

As a civil engineer, I sympathise with these observations, realising that the construction industry is essentially a professional boys-club. There’s a very masculine tough-it-out attitude permeating the industry, expected in a career that requires frequent contact with the outdoors, travelling, long hours and physical labour. Those equipped with boisterous and domineering personalities are coveted and most workers are accustomed to communicating via a tirade of expletives, using crass humour as a means of expressing comradeship.

Of course, there are women who embrace this culture with less indecision. But many women, by nature, have an affinity for organic themes (people, animals, plants) or are hardwired for emotive expression – and thus unsurprisingly feel patronised in a workplace that silently discourages emotional language. While the ability to adapt and grow is important for any profession, I believe a line must be drawn where a drastic personality change is anticipated for a job.

I often wonder then, if attempts to motivate a gross increase in women’s entrance into engineering by affirmative action are futile. But on the flip-side, is it not also un-feminist to insist that all women should have identical career aspirations to men? It’s imperative to note here that young girls exhibit as much calibre in maths and science as boys, and hence the under-representation of women in engineering is not reflective of an inferior technical aptitude, but rather a complex manifold of other causes including individual choices, lifestyle priorities and industry-wide misogyny.

The real goal for engineering thus transcends the notion of literal gender equality in the workforce, and instead must focus on achieving a gender-neutral workforce benefitting both genders alike. In Australia for instance, the organisation Mates in Construction rose from statistics showing “suicide levels within the Construction Industry are up to two times higher than those for other workers and workers have six times more likelihood of dying through suicide than through workplace accident.” They discovered that men often viewed the act of sharing their struggles with colleagues as an indication of unmanliness, and craved an unbiased outlet for releasing emotional burdens. These results petition for a change in detrimental attitudes in which the male identity is bound by pride, strength and apathy – and also perceived to be superior.

Perhaps gender balance does not mean 50-50 participation by men and women. Perhaps it should propose an environment providing equal opportunity and encouragement to women keen to join the field, and where shaming is absent, such as the association of external ‘toughness‘ with domination and technical aptitude, and ’emotion‘ with weakness. A neutral workforce eradicates biases in the selection and promotion of individuals, while acknowledging that gender equality should not entail the mimicry of masculine qualities. When these issues no longer exist, a clearer picture of equality in the workforce will perhaps emerge where equality in numbers is not a pre-requisite.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ra’s al Ghul

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    1. ABs

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    2. Arrow

      For once, Arrow agrees with Ra’s Al Gul

  2. Dan Smith

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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