Mechanical Engineering is a strongly male dominated field. When I was studying Engineering we had no female students in our class. I don’t remember any female students in the batches before or after mine as well. The event I attended yesterday at Goa Engineering College was organized by MESA (Mechanical Engineering Students Association) and was attended by students of all the four years of Mechanical Engineering studying at the college. So I was pleasantly surprised to see four female students in the audience.
Before I started my speech I asked the female students to stand up. Obviously they hesitated. A lot. It took quite a bit of convincing from me and coaxing from their male colleagues to make them get up from their seats. When they did I asked everyone in the audience to given them a loud applause, which they whole heartedly did.
After my speech, there was a Q&A session where the students posed their queries to me and another batch mate of mine, Anil D’Souza, who was the Guest of Honor. We did our best to answer their questions and be as frank and straight forward as possible. When the last question was answered and the organizers were winding up proceedings, I noticed one of the girls look at me and very hesitantly lift her hand to ask a question. I interrupted the organizer and asked that the girl be given a microphone. This was her question: “Being a female in a male dominated industry, do you think I will have trouble finding a job or face problems in the workplace?”
I replied, “Yes, you will.” There was subdued laughter in the audience. Then I continued, “But here is a question to everyone. How many of you think that a few months or years after graduating from this college, you will still be doing hard core Mechanical work? By that I mean how many of you will be getting your hands dirty operating machines and wipe your faces with cotton wool? Here is the thing. In these four years you will be taught a great of theory and will get a chance to apply some of it in your labs. After you graduate and find a job you will get actual hands on experience on the various aspects of your company. But after that you will do something else for the rest of your professional lives. And that is manage people. People under your command will come to you with their problems. Very rarely you will actually need to solve those problems yourself. Your job will mainly be to show them how they can solve their problems themselves. The point that I am trying to make is that your company will mainly be paying you to think like an engineer, not be an engineer. And to do that you need to have a very strong base in your theory which would need to be adequately reinforced with hands on experience. If you are able to do that you will be a successful engineer. It really does not matter whether you are a man or a woman. This applies to both equally.”
In reply to another question Anil was trying to point out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. He said, “Knowledge is what you accumulate in these four years of college. When you graduate you will need to use that knowledge to solve real world problems yourself or help other solve them. When you do that your knowledge will start getting converted into wisdom. Engineers are not paid for their knowledge. They are paid for their wisdom. And wisdom is not something that can be taught or handed down to you. You need to build it yourself through experience.”
I guess the point that Anil and I were trying to make is that as engineers, and not just Mechanical engineers, we are most useful when we think and not when we do. Engineering is actually an intellectual profession. The most important organ of an engineer’s body is the brain. All other organs are mere tools and nothing else.
I completely understand the gender bias that exists in the real world, especially in the field of Mechanical Engineering. But I believe that the people who can fix that problem are women themselves. There is very little coming in the way of women arming themselves with strong theoretical knowledge and backing it up with practical hands on experience as best as they possibly can.