“You only fix something, when it’s broken. And you – are far from broken.”
― Abhijit Naskar,
Ok… Apparently, I belong to an exclusive club in the States, and maybe that’s not as bad as I think. If anything, this is probably the most prestigious minority group I was ever a part of. If you’ve read my last blog, “Engineer and Prejudice”, you would know which rare breed I’m alluding to. Throughout my stay in the States, I’ve been bombarded with comments on how special and fortunate I am for getting the opportunity to pursue a career in engineering even though I’m a woman. I’ve been blessed with praise to the point where I took it for granted, climbing my way up the ivory tower, only to watch it crumble every time I go back home. But now that I am here, I will enjoy my stay in the ivory tower. When strangers tell me that I must be smart for being an engineer, I won’t shy away and try to explain how I believe we all are smart in our own way. Instead, I will own it and say, “Thank you!”, shrugging my shoulders, as if it’s no big deal instead of looking surprised. I will roll my head as well for a dramatic effect.
At a certain point during my study, something didn’t feel quite right. I asked a friend if she noticed how this one professor’s vibe was off whenever I approached him.
“Of course, he doesn’t feel comfortable around you. You’re too girly. He doesn’t know how to deal with you!” my friend responded, without any hesitation.
I was sure I misheard her.
“Girly? Who? Me?” I asked, baffled by her response.
“You are wearing a bow on your head. Of course, you’re girly.”
Me… girly? Why didn’t I get the memo about this??
Dear readers, I would like to briefly point out that I worked as a field engineer for four years at one of the largest refineries in Kuwait before moving to the States. In my head, all I could think about is the fact that I am certain my experience on the field is way more masculine than what most of my lab mates and professors combined have ever done throughout their professional careers. I was the first female engineer to join the electrical maintenance department at Mina El-Ahmadi Refinery, KNPC. If anything, I was perceived as one of the most masculine women engineers to ever set foot on the field. And, that field, mind you, is located in the hottest place on the planet. I am someone who knows how and when to get my hands dirty and when I don’t need to, I choose to wear a bow on my head.
“What is wrong with my bow?” I asked.
“It is huge,” answered my friend.
I guess that was the moment when I realized for the first time that I did belong in a minority group within a minority group. I was perceived to be too feminine in a field defined to be masculine. I mean, you wear a bow and immediately you’re qualified to fit the category of being too girly. The thought was very new to me and struck me as odd. When I was in college, I was never the girl with the trendy sense of style, neither did I carry the attitude of one. Ironically, I was known for being nerdy according to the Kuwaiti standards. Wait until you meet some of the sassy Kuwaiti female students walking around the College of Engineering in high heels, with layers of make-up on.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing demeaning about being a girl with a great sense of style. But, the feeling I got was that being ‘girly’ has no place in the world of engineering. In fact, being girly felt like being considered to be mutually exclusive of intellect and reason. While my lab mates were being tagged with high attributes such as being smart and wizardly technical, I was recognized as the emotional/social butterfly who puts a lot of effort into the way she dresses and adds cultural flavor to the team with sweets and Arabic coffee.
Once I stumbled upon a list about what it takes to be ‘nerdy’. The list highlighted 27 requirements necessary to be considered a true nerd at heart; funny enough, none of my attributes met the US standards of a nerd. Instead of debating about imaginary weapons, I chose to spend my free time in the kitchen, testing out new recipes and mixing my own herbs. In my defense, cooking is a scientific process – when you add the right ingredients at the right time, in the right proportion, and mix them at the right temperature, you can transform dull ingredients into something edible and quite delicious. Now, isn’t this more magical than partying with Hobbits?
But that list is ridiculous, don’t you think? I am a nerd by default. I am already an engineer, damn it! You know what, I accept! I accept that according to the standards of this culture, I might lean towards the more girly girl on the spectrum. How is it that most of the women engineers that I had the pleasure of meeting seem to have so much in common, while I feel like a misfit – despite our equal qualifications? While some might feel comfortable being portrayed as the typical geek we see on TV, I choose to embrace my true identity, and quite often find myself shying away from such stereotypes. I began to question the differences between our cultures, and how fields such as Engineering are to specific populations. From my perspective, educational institutions in the States have structured their systems in a way to advertise maths and science as masculine fields with no room for flexibility.
As it turns out, this could be a possible reason behind girls’ lack of interest in science and math. A recent study asserted that the culture in fields such as engineering is masculine and is usually associated with certain stereotypes that resonate more with boys than girls. Such stereotypes have proven to drive females away from majors that are perceived to be fit for ‘geeky men’ with no social lives. Yes, in this study we trust. If a grown-up woman who is already an engineer felt like an outlier and was self-conscious about the way she conducted herself, how would a teenager, who is striving for a sense of belonging, feel about such fields? Even at my age and with level of experience, it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I would be different. Will a teenager manage to do that? Or, will she simply give up on the whole idea and major in something else?
For reasons I don’t understand, it felt that just by being myself, I am defying certain unwritten rules that govern this geeky world they speak of. I felt the need to detach myself from my femininity and mold myself into the norms that were set by men. But, I am not broken. I don’t need to be fixed. I am fine the way I am. I am confident that my differences do not, by any chance, impact my passion – a thirst for knowledge. All I ask is to stop celebrating stereotypes that deter minority groups such as women; instead, how about we work on creating an inclusive culture that attracts different kinds of people from all walks of life, hmm? And, in the meantime, my bow and I are not going anywhere.