A Universal Dilemma for Women Engineers

“During our time, umpteen choices were not available like they are today… engineering to my father and me was personified in the form of the civil engineer who had come to build the bridge across the river in our village. We did not know that all engineers are not specialists in building bridges” (Laughter) … “Basically, [it was] after two or three years in college, when I had to go to into the field for work, that my teachers told me to opt for Electrical Engineering. I was the only girl interested in Civil (engineering)…”

That was the 1960s and Annapurna (name changed), 68, who has retired as Chief Engineer of the Kerala State Electricity Board, was not the only youngster of her generation who thought that engineers were only those who built bridges.

Many young women then seemed to be stuck with the image of “that man who came to build bridges” and with that image of an engineer – as overtly masculine and yet ‘gender neutral’. Those who entered the field adjusted to the existing situation and practices. It never crossed their minds that they could not cope with the demands of the profession. What they were slightly conscious of was the fact that they did not have many female colleagues.

Today, however, there is a considerable change in the way the profession is imagined and understood. Quite literally a lot of water has flown under the bridge that the engineer in Annapurna’s village had built in the early 1960s. But the answer to the question about the change in the image of engineering is a complex one, intertwined with the history of the evolution of the profession in terms of its disciplinary growth, diversification and popularity among female students. The answer to the question is also closely connected to the one sided linkage between the technical and social as well as the prevalent notions of ‘physicality’ and ‘strength’ associated with the masculine, as opposed to the ‘nimbleness’ and ‘weakness’ that is linked to the feminine.

So, what has changed? The fact is that engineers are no longer only seen as those who ‘climb the post’ and ‘build bridges’. The proliferation of disciplines such as Information Technology and Computer Engineering has allowed for the wider participation of women than ever before. The association of physical strength with the profession remains, but the argument about the innate intellectual inferiority of women is never made. It seems that the latter notion can no longer be a justification for the exclusion of women and is almost completely absent in the Indian scenario.

But certainly the distinction between those fields that need ‘strength’ and those that don’t, remains. And although there has been an undoubted shift in the way the profession is perceived, the basic idea of an engineer as a person who is “associated with buildings and telephones and automobiles” remains, according to Prof. Jyothi Sankaran, Head and Professor of Chemical Engineering Department at TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, Kerala.

Sankaran, who did her Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the University of Calicut (1975-1979), believes that the gendering of disciplines is in accordance with the demands of the practical work in the field. She categorises Chemical Engineering – her area of expertise – as a discipline that imposes some restrictions on the women who practice it. Going up the flare stack to check for unwanted gas in the field of pollution control can be very exhausting for women, according to her. Therefore, as is the case in the rest of the world, women chemical engineers here tend to spend more of their lives as chemists and in pharmaceutical industries. Defining a separate labour market for themselves has been an escape route for women globally.

Barring women from working at night has also acted as legal enforcement for the restrictions placed on the participation of women engineers in chemical industries. Says Sankaran, “I have been part of the annual inspection team constituted by the Kerala Pollution Control Board as an academic nominee. The team has to inspect, report and suggest remedial measures for the pollution and waste in institutions such as hospitals and industries of various kinds, like rubber processing, spices, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and so on. I have been associated with this work from 2003 onwards, albeit on alternate years, and have found that the five-member committee has always been made up of men. I have been the only woman on it, except for the last three times. Nevertheless, the other members have been accommodating and I had an excellent experience working with them, both personally and professionally… I never felt like I am a woman… And, in any case, I can [comfortably] walk into the Mechanical Department and be at ease with the [male] teachers there… I behave like a man there…and they cannot exclude me saying that I am a woman…”

This brings us to the question: Is engineering really acting as a gender bender? Prof. Sankaran thought of herself as a man – a sign of success in engineering – while Annapurna chose to wear a high necked blouse with long sleeves and a white sari in order to neutralise the (overt) differences in gender with her fellow male workers, especially the workmen whom she had to supervise. But why do women feel the need to ‘be men’ in order to prove that they are good in their work?

This is not a dilemma confined just to professional women engineers in Kerala or elsewhere in India, this is a universal one. The difference between various countries is only a matter of degree. The evolution of the relationship between gender and engineering has been similar in the US as it has been in India, despite the fact that many women in the US had in fact entered a ‘clearly male’ field like mining way early in the history of the profession. The concept of professionalism in the US or elsewhere is not just a question of a border dispute with other disciplines, but was in inverse proportion to women’s presence in the field. In a study that the US-based academic Ruth Oldenziel did in 1994, she found that the more professionalised a field was, the lesser the number of women who entered it. Similar was the case with membership to professional associations.

So, clearly, gender and engineering in India is following the same path as it has in many other countries. The introduction of newer disciplines may have encouraged women to enter them, but these specialisations are limited in terms of their growth. To assess the participation of women in engineering as a discipline would necessarily have to assess as a whole their participation in various branches of the profession. And going by that measure, engineering continues to reflect the broader reality of unequal gender relations in society and it will be a long while before real equality come to mark their presence.

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