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Women in Engineering: Fighting one’s own judgments

[Source: www.ted.com]

As a teenager I did not really know what I wanted to be. However, I knew what not to be; an engineer. It was mainly because engineering seemed to be a clichéd profession that everyone wanted to take up. I wanted to be “different” whatever that meant. But here I am, a recent engineering graduate and a woman in engineering nonetheless.

A year of contemplation and perspective changing experiences in college convinced me to take up engineering. I enjoyed what it had to offer and found gratification in my projects. However, throughout the process I found myself placing judgment on my abilities. There was always this voice at the back of my head whispering, “You’re not good enough”, which was strange because I’d never heard it before I was officially accepted into the department and started taking engineering courses. I’ve always enjoyed Math and Physics and believed that I have the aptitude for it. So what had changed? Why did I constantly doubt myself?

After a lot of thinking, I realized that it was the demographic of my classes that had intimidated me. Not as many women and a lot of intelligent men throwing a bunch of what ended up being unconnected jargon just to sound smart. Keep in mind; these are college kids who are just trying to do what they think is necessary to fit in and get ahead of everyone else. So, I don’t blame them. But all of a sudden, I was afraid of asking questions for the fear of sounding stupid. To exemplify, one of my female friends asked a supposedly “stupid” question in class. Although everyone probably had the same question in mind, a bunch of people just rolled their eyes at her or gave resigned nods as if the question was not worth their time. Most of the individuals who obliged my friend with their discouraging response were male, or so I sharply noticed. That exacerbated my problem as it reinforced the idea that engineering is not my game as I’m not good enough because, well I am a girl. Sounds silly, but this false logic took seat in my mind for almost the rest of college.

There have been points in my college engineering education when I was in a team where all other members were male. In situations like these, I always felt or rather made myself feel useless because apparently “I did not know anything”. It was hard for me to accept praise for my work due to my assumption that people just do it because I’m a female engineer and so they need to be polite. I count myself lucky because all the individuals I’ve worked with, of any gender have always been supportive and non-judgmental which is what made me realize that this bias was coming from within me. No one male, female or otherwise ever told me that I’m not good enough. Turns out I cooked up this story all by myself. I realized that I was harboring this weird prejudice in my head that “boys are better at engineering” due to which I underestimated my abilities and was fearful of open-hearted participation. No matter how much I studied or worked hard, the prejudice never went. I didn’t know where it even came from. The quest for “proving myself” as an equally smart engineer took a toll on me and my studies as it led to a lot of anxiety and self-confidence issues.

I don’t know if any other women in the field have had similar problems or not, but I do believe it is a relevant experience. The crux of the problem is how do we impart self-confidence in women from a younger age? Such that they don’t place judgements on themselves based on pre-existing biases. Does that mean changing the education system? Or more societal awareness? I’m not really sure. However, what I’ve learned is that even the drive passion provides can often be dampened by the lack of self-confidence and questions regarding one’s abilities. You can tell a person that they are good enough, as much as you want, however that hardly bears fruit until the person believes it them-self. In my opinion, the women in engineering movement is telling a lot of women that they are equally good, which of course they are. But the question is, how do we encourage young girls and women to BELIEVE that they are equally good ?

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