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Why Is Mechanical Engineering Only For Boys?

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Editor's note: This post is a part of #BHL, a campaign by BBC Media Action and Youth Ki Awaaz to redefine and own the label of what a 'bigda hua ladka or ladki' really is. If you believe in making your own choices and smashing this stereotype, share your story.

The phrase ‘mechanical engineering’ has no preference for boys in it.

What is mechanical engineering? It is the discipline of science that applies the principle of engineering, physics and material science for the design, analysis and… Oops, I am sorry!

Mechanical engineering is the branch of engineering that is mostly devoid of girls – and only boys are supposed to study the subject because it is said that girls do not have good job prospects.

And even if you have taken up the subject:

1. You become the ajooba (odd one out) of the class.

2. You are considered the ‘damsel in distress’.

3. Suddenly, the whole college knows you.

4. Your hostel roommates are the only girls you initially know in college.

5. Nobody else can give proxy attendance for you – #SingleGirlInClassProblems.

Sounds funny? I really feel ashamed if you are laughing at this.

Most people assume that mechanical engineering is roughly equivalent to dealing with cars, engines, gears, etc. While it is true that those things can be used to represent mechanics and mechanical engineering, they do not define us. Personally, I know a girl who wants to design medical equipment (like prosthetics and/or artificial limbs/organs). But, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know what mechanical engineers do – and kids are taught from a young age that ‘boys are supposed to play with cars’ and ‘girls are supposed to play with dolls’.

First, I would clarify the difference between ‘science’ and ‘engineering’ through a simple example. The study of the optics of materials will fall under ‘science’. Scientists (physicists, in this case) will try to explain the optical properties which different materials possess. If someone tries to use the optical properties to make a microscope or a camera, they may be termed an ‘engineer’. Scientists establish facts which engineers exploit to make things useful for society. History would tell you that scientists did a lot of engineering work in the past.

A batch-mate of mine studied mechanical engineering because she didn’t want to be an architect – and she was pretty sure that she wouldn’t be able to pass any of her electrical engineering, biotechnology and chemical engineering exams That’s why she took up this stream.

Jokes aside, the public does not usually know enough about the broad field of engineering to encourage people (especially women) to know more. Most students pursuing engineering don’t truly know what it is until they reach the final year of their college. There are no television shows about engineers (they are always about architects, doctors, lawyers and sexy forensic scientists) – and lets face it, it’s not sexy!

Engineers don’t receive any attention until someone fails or dies. ‘Engineering’ in itself is a vague word. You can drive a train and be an ‘engineer’. You can mop the fifth floor of a building and be a ‘building engineer’!

Our neighbour used to tell me, “Boys are always brilliant in mathematics, while girls are brilliant in biology.” My jaw dropped when I found that his son had scored 98 in biology and 52 in mathematics. It really feels sad when society says engineering isn’t a woman’s thing. There are a lot of messages in our society that discourage women from pursuing engineering – things like ‘women aren’t good at maths and science’, ‘women just don’t go for engineering’, ‘engineering is really unfriendly to women’, ‘the only women who could be interested in a STEM degree are control freaks/too ugly to get a man/ have something wrong with her because those are man things’ and ‘men don’t like smart women – if you are a female engineer, you’ll be too intimidating’. These are lies – but they’re pernicious lies because they have some far-removed grain of truth and a thick outer coat of things people want to be true for terrible reasons.

Engineering is not the only profession that benefits from a ‘nuanced’ story. The value of a medical degree is as much about saved lives and improved health as about the organic chemistry class along the way. The value of an education degree is as much about the young lives transformed by excellent teaching as the impossibly-difficult history class along the way. And the value of an engineering degree is as much about empowering a young engineer to make our engineered world a better place as the calculus class that kept her up late every night.

We need to support and encourage students to build the maths, science and engineering skills which they need to be successful engineers. But we also need to help them develop a broader understanding of those skills as tools for building a ‘better-engineered’ world. When we begin to tell multi-faceted stories like these, then we will find that a much larger and more diverse set of students identify themselves as ‘engineers’.

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