What It Has Meant To Be The Only Girl In An Engineering Class Of 60 Boys

Posted by Rimli Bhattacharya in Society, Staff Picks
November 14, 2017

“For whatever reason, I didn’t succumb to the stereotype that science wasn’t for girls. I got encouragement from my parents. I never ran into a teacher or a counsellor who told me that science was for boys. A lot of my friends did.”

Sally Ride (first American woman in space)

Understanding Science

What we know: 5%, what we don’t know: 10%, what we don’t know that we don’t know: 85%.

Science comes into the third bracket of 85%. It’s a cognitive and pragmatic hubbub comprising a fastidious research of structure and etiquette through constant observation and experiment.

In simple words, science ventures in that category of collecting new information, scrutinising, ameliorating and discarding old theories. It’s a way of unearthing the universe and making it work as per today’s world. It is used to embellish new technologies, treat diseases, etc. through an ongoing process which is a constant uptrend in the search for knowledge. Science is a technique of discovering the secluded facts and turning them into cogent and radical understandings of the magical cosmos. While we all know that men have contributed enormously in terms of science, this essay deals with women, feminism and their contribution to science.

Women, Feminism And Their Contribution To Science

We have a long list of women savants who have immensely contributed to society through science. To name a few: Emilie do Chatelet (mathematician, physicist and author), Chien-Shiung Wu (an experimental physicist), Francoise Barre (virologist and winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine), Asima Chatterjee (an Indian chemist with mastery on organic chemistry and photochemistry), Rajeshwari Chatterjee (the first woman engineer) and me, who dared to venture and grab a seat in mechanical engineering which was considered only for boys, only to be proved wrong.

I am no scientist, or Nobel Prize winner, but I emerged as a topper and bagged a gold medal only to be hated by own classmates. It doesn’t matter though because I know what I am, where I belong, and my contribution to society, through my corporate career, social work, as a preacher, as a dancer and most importantly through technology and science.

It’s rather shameful that our society remains biased of the fact only a man can be a science scholar knowing fully well that women have made major contributions in the field of science. But how many women can we name?

A new analysis of science has started emerging through contemporary feminist critics. The anastigmatic of feminist dogma brings into focus certain masculine distortions of the scientific enterprise, creating a prospective predicament. Despite the fact, there is an eternal conflict between feminism and science and women have proved it wrong time and again. Francoise Barre–Sinoussi, the French biologist, has immensely contributed to the research of HIV/AIDS. She shared the Nobel Prize in 2008 with her mentor Luc Montagnier, the French virologist for being the pioneers of identifying the illness and bringing the disease and deaths under control through a breakthrough in medications.

The fact that women scientists face ridicule from society only helps them burgeon a strong bond between feminism and science. The feminist thoughts might as well help in irradiate and simplify the anatomy of science, which might have been bygone into manipulation to preserve what science is and be more factual.

From a feminist bird’s eye view, the most predominant dimension of the affinity between literature and science is the degree to which both enterprises are grounded on the use of metaphor and image. The explanatory models of science, like the plots of literary works, depend on linguistic structures which are shaped by parable and allegory. The feminist reader is perhaps most sensitised to those symbolic structures which employ gender as a major protean or merit.

The relationship between women and science took on a special significance for Evelyn Fox Keller in the mid-1970’s which is elaborated through this essay, “As a woman scientist, a mathematical biophysics specialist, she felt she could no longer avoid the questions swirling around in her head on the role of gender and the making of science. Much of this interest was a direct result of two fairly recent avenues of scholarship: the social studies of science and the feminist theory. In the social studies of science, the task was to examine the development of science in a political and social context. For feminist theory, the task was to address the absence of women in the history of social and political thought. By combining the two, Keller hoped to determine how the making of man and woman (the ideology of gender) affected the making of science. The essays contained in Reflections were the culmination of ten years of analysis on the historical, psychological, and philosophical aspects of the role gender played in science. It is Keller’s contention that a gender-free science would be more beneficial as well as more humane.”

The equilibrium of competence in the world will only materialise when there is an equal contribution of men and women in the society through their benefaction in science.

Sandra Harding, a distinguished research professor of Education Emeritus at UCLA in her book, “The science question in feminism” says that, “Feminist empiricism, which identifies only bad science as the problem; the feminist standpoint, which holds that women’s social experience provides a unique starting point for discovering masculine bias in science; and feminist postmodernism, which disputes the most basic scientific assumptions. She points out the tensions among these stances and the inadequate concepts that inform their analyses, yet maintains that the critical discourse they foster is vital to the quest for a science informed by emancipatory morals and politics.”

Women have extensively contributed to science, but they all stayed low profile with their work spoke on their behalf. This was the case with all if not most. A few examples are Maria Agnesi, Agnodice, Virginia Apgar and Florence Bascom.

It’s a bitter fact that science and gender equality aren’t the best confidants. Even in this progressive epoch, females are still heavily marginalised in fields pertaining to science and technology.

For centuries, women have grappled for recognition of their academic achievements, and they rarely received it during their lifetime. In words of Chien-Shiung Wu, experimental physicist “It is shameful that there are so few women in science. There is a misconception in America that woman scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men.” Time and again women had to swedge themselves to prove their contributions to science

Sudha Murthy, a computer scientist and engineer, is the perfect example who spouted against the gender discrimination. She bagged the same job at Tata Motors which clarified“Only male candidates need to apply.”

In a fit of rage, she wrote to Ratan Tata about the discrimination, and Mr Tata did justice to her by recruiting her with Tata Motors after she cleared the gruelling technical sessions. To be very honest we find very few men who are very supportive and treat a woman with respect and equality. Ratan Tata is one and the second Sudha Murthy’s husband, Narayan Murthy. There may be many more, but the question still prevails – why do we need to struggle so much to prove our intelligence? Women have grey cells in the brain as well. God did justice to us too and we all born with a cognitive mind.

Here are a few examples of women who aced their field:

1. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to travel into space. She fought out against 400 contestants and five finalists and executed 48 trajectories of the earth in her three days in space.

2. Hypatia was the first women mathematician from Egypt, and major contribution was in Arithmetic which was back then known as ‘Arithmetica’.

3. Marie Skłodowska-Curie was  the first woman to be awarded double Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry both for her work on radiation.

4. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first women physician and also the co-founder of the National Health society way back in 1871.

5. Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was the first woman to grab a degree in Civil Engineering from Cornell University in 1905 later turned an activist in protest to women sufferings.

6. Mary Edwards Walker was the first female surgeon from the United States later turned into an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and the first woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

History has been a witness of the fact that woman had to fight in the patriarchal society and science, in particular, was a taboo for women and continues to be even though the nation claims that women are given equal status quo.

That is clearly not true, as women are still fighting their battles, and feminist activists are coming out in greater numbers. Feminism is all about equality, so why is it so difficult for our society to give justice to women? The men who claim that women should be given the equal rights are the ones who mostly also try to drag down a female.

I would like to conclude this essay by sharing my personal experience on how I had to fight gender bias on my own without help.

Born to a family of academicians, I chose to study mechanical engineering, a field considered only for men after clearing the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). I refused to settle for Dental Surgery but barged into this category and was ridiculed.

I was the only girl among 60 boys and each day I had to listen to taunts like, “This is not your area, better go to a different field. You are wasting your time.” I bore their sexist remarks like, “Wear your clothes properly, you are here not to impress us,” while I only wore a salwar kameez with dupatta. I faced ragging from the seniors, and each of them chased me equally as hounds to date them. When which I refused it only added fuel to their anger and frustration.

A professor in college gave me the lowest possible grade in production engineering and thermal power, as I refused to sleep with him, many women agreed to his demands for marks and that was the only reason he approached me and I declined.

In spite of so many hardships, I still managed to be a topper of each semester and emerged a first-class gold medalist but with the remark from my classmates “It was her looks she impressed the professors, she knows nothing of engineering,” despite the fact was we had both internal and external paper checkers.

I fought them out alone which they found hard to digest. It was President Abdul Kalam who handed over the medal to my mother as I was unavailable given to the fact I had already started working with a firm. My very own seniors, who were also women said, “She will hardly get any marks that filed is for men, she chose a wrong path.” Oh yes, I chose a wrong path only to prove how wrong you all are.

There were several interviews I faced where they wanted only male candidates, irrespective of the fact I had succeeded the initial phase of the written interview, the second phase of group discussion and final round of face to face interaction. I was told, “We care for your safety, we would wish to hire a man, do you know to drive? How will you handle travel and work all alone?”

Some interviewers were more interested in juicy gossips rather than asking technical questions, and I had no choice but to stop the interview in between.  The same people who acted nasty with me now want to connect with me through the social media. Sadly, I am not interested. I have forgiven everyone, and each insult was thrown at me for choosing mechanical engineering and being a topper, for touring alone for vendor visits, inspections and developments, but I haven’t forgotten the mental trauma I faced.

It’s time females speak up and stand against this gender bias. Science is not only for a man, a woman is equally talented, and history has proved it time and again.

Gender equality is not a woman’s issue, it is a human issue, and it affects us all. Real freedom can only be achieved once women have freedom from oppression. We have the power within us, and it’s just that the world needs to see our wisdom, our intellect, our courage and how we too can change the world.

Science is one of the major contributors through which that change can happen which we women have proved it earlier and can prove it even today.

This article was first published here.