I remember, about two years back, at the coaching institute I attended for engineering; my first day out there was nothing short of a nightmare! Coming from a typically all girls, disciplined convent environment, all I saw in that classroom were about 40 odd heads crammed into the dingy classroom, of which 39 were male! I was beyond myself with surprise! Maybe it was just my class…. Nope! Class after class, institute after institute, same story! “Hey I just got one girl in my class!” or worse-“I’m the only one in mine!” Did that mean I was amongst a privileged few whose parents had let them take engineering as a dream career for themselves?

Probably. When I walked into IGIT, an all girls engineering institute, a government initiative, and the first of its kind in India, my classmates had almost similar stories too. What was worse was possibly the fact, that most of them from co-ed schools had faced 2 girls per 50 boys’ sex ratio even in their science stream classrooms at school!

When I really started thinking about why girls were just hallucinations in engineering, I stumbled upon a number of hidden sentiments deep down within my mind, which I’d overlooked before, and which suddenly became so obvious. Simple things. Like attending the workshop practice. My neighbour said something like-“Oh my god! Girls welding, and sawing and doing metal work! These things, smithy and all that isn’t a woman’s job. That’s stuff men are born to do!” to which I could only say “Oh Please!” but really, deep down that is what most parents feel. The entire issue of few women in engineering as compared to mass female enrolment in architecture or medicine and particularly ordinary graduation is not simply a professional one, but to a large extent determined by the social getup of the region.

In a society infested by dowry, female foeticide/infanticide and sex-discrimination, a number of factors would make conventional parents think twice about putting their daughters to an engineering course. I say parents putting, because, in India most kids take up courses by their parents’ choices after plus two. The very first one is obviously the fact that engineering is quite an expensive affair. To guardians interested in getting rid of “an accident” (read daughter) spending so much on her, when there’s already the expense of dowry itself, is just not worth. So instead, a graduation course would be just adequate for getting a good groom. Wait, let me contradict myself somewhat. These days, many urban parents prefer to keep their daughters in a professional course. That is to say, they believe that girls can earn their dowry themselves. Engineering happens to be the easiest way to earn in the shortest span of time possible. Then why the meagre female enrolment figures? That brings us to the second problem that parents have with engineering.

Architecture, or medicine fields like gynaecology, or law, don’t take a woman beyond their little cubicles with men, and don’t need a woman to give in hours of her precious family time to the office. Whereas most of the hardcore engineering fields like civil or mechanical do. Also, most of the other professions are not predominantly male oriented as is engineering. Basically most engineering jobs are not marriage compatible and that, to parents, isn’t exactly acceptable.

Another very valid clause that parents have about their girls is the increased chances of sexual harassment that are identifiable with the corporate sector. They feel, and rightly so, that most if not all corporate houses have little or no provision for ensuring the safety of female employees. Right from the parking lot of the building, to the Manager’s office, there is no such haven for a woman should she be a victim of such unprecedented acts by fellow colleagues or by seniors. To top it all, the loop holes in the Indian legal system are too many to ensure justice in case of such incidents.

And of course there is the ultimate drawback that girls have: the negative psychology that they experience and the under estimation that they face from home to school, right through class 12. Your brother’s better than you, you are too delicate to handle this, you can’t travel this far, you can’t compromise on your health! The cants are too many!

Freelancer Prachi Patel-Predd writes in “A League of Extraordinary Women” [IEEE Spectrum, October 2005] “All two few girls consider engineering as a career, and the profession is the poorer for it, as talented individuals seek vocations elsewhere. But a new program is in the works in the U.S. to attract young women to engineering—and to keep them in the career.”

Of course, Prachi was talking of the United States, where a number of professional engineering societies, including ASCE, the IEEE and the National Academy of Engineering, are carrying forth a nationwide program: Extraordinary Women Engineers Project or EWEP. This program encourages women to take up engineering as a career, through counselling and telling teenage girls how lucrative this profession can get. The pioneer of this movement is Patricia D. Galloway, whose motivation had been the falling enrolment rates of women in engineering.

The percentage of women graduates in engineering in U.S. as of October 2005 was 23%. In India, the figure in some of our advanced regions is just a third of this: about 7.9% at I.I.T. Mumbai. In Tamil Nadu however, the percentage of women graduates in engineering was 10.1%, slightly more, possibly because of the numerous private institutions that have sprung up all over. However, statistics show that while almost all regions are almost at par, northern India still has to catch up with the rest in number of female engineer graduates.

Still, as they say, a silver lining to every cloud, at least we have an uphill enrolment rate, not downhill. The situation obviously has to be improved. How, is the million dollar question. I guess the first step would be to counsel parents of girl children to motivate them in sending their daughters to engineering colleges. Side by side we need to step up enforcement of our laws that safeguard women, particularly in work places. Especially for this we need the support of NGOs on a national scale. In addition what we need is assurance from faculty and staff in educational institutions and their belief that girls can be successful engineers if they want to.

And then of course, an indispensable prerequisite is the “never say die” spirit in girls themselves. It’s up to us to decide what’s best for us, and live up to our own expectations as engineers. With this I’d like to sign off. All the Best to all the girls who’re aspiring engineers!

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