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Women in science are made to feel like impostors

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An absorbed fear that you are not good enough might look like the smallest of the obstacles women in STEM fields face. The All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-18 estimates that 40% of the undergraduates in science and engineering are women, but women make up only 14% of scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research and development institutions.

When I introduce myself to people outside the worlds of science and engineering, I often joke that I am a rocket scientist. It’s not untrue: I studied aerospace engineering both in college and graduate school. Some ask why I am not a rocket scientist anymore. I have an arsenal of responses ranging from poetic (“I was fascinated by flight, by the poetic idea of overreaching and escape”) to witty (“Studying aeronautics because you are fascinated by flight is like becoming a gynaecologist because you like watching porn”).

Buried underneath the banter is an unspoken conviction that I was not good enough to continue. Let’s pause and consider the evidence: I graduated as the department topper. In graduate school, I had a perfect 4.0 GPA. Professors and mentors told me that I had the temperament for research. Yet, I found the idea of a career in research laughable. I would have done it if I were smarter, I believed. To have a meaningful career as a researcher in science or engineering one had to be a genius, but I thought I was only an aberration.

It was in graduate school in the US that I learnt of the impostor syndrome, a psychological pattern where one believes, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that one is a fraud, that one’s successes are sheer flukes. Impostor syndrome, huh, I remember thinking. Trust the Americans to come up with big names for the weight of bad decisions. Like the decision to pursue science or engineering when one is not cut out for it.

Back in college, I was an aberration: I was the only woman in my class of around 40. In my third year, I was working on a homework assignment with some of my classmates. At one point I got stuck and one of the men explained to me how to proceed. It was a perfectly normal interaction, but when I excused myself to use the bathroom, I came back to overhear this classmate sagely pronouncing that girls might get better grades, but they just don’t get the fundamentals of maths and science. All I heard was that I did not understand those fundamentals. It wasn’t the first such pronouncement. I had heard that girls do well in school only because they work harder, only because teachers favour them, only because boys aren’t serious about their futures yet. The real geniuses — like Einstein, like Edison — were, in a way, too cool for school. Yes, I did work hard. Yes, teachers liked me. But did I know everything, could I answer every question? No. Hence, not good enough. I never stopped to ask why a man could so easily extrapolate one woman’s wrong answer to a weakness of the whole gender, and why, just as easily, a woman could believe that she was the specific subject of every loose judgement on women (unless, of course, she declared that she was not like other girls.)

I am still learning to probe my self-doubt and shed the parts of it that are inherited. I am still learning to question my own biases. When I wanted to examine my professional experiences in my first novel, I instinctively wrote a male character. In Milk Teeth, it’s the male protagonist Kartik who is a brilliant student, who goes to an elite engineering college. It’s the man who grapples with the sting of unfulfilled genius. And it took two drafts for me to even question this choice, and the voice in my head said at once: “But it feels more universal this way. With a female character, this struggle will feel too specific, too narrow.”

The All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-18 estimates that 40% of the undergraduates in science and engineering are women, but women make up only 14% of scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research and development institutions. An absorbed fear that you are not good enough might look like the smallest of the obstacles women in STEM fields face – like sexism and discriminatory practices, an uneven distribution of childcare and chores at home, weaker peer networks, fewer female mentors and far fewer women in decision-making positions – but let’s not forget the young man who thinks women “just don’t get the fundamentals of maths and science”. Even if we don’t listen to him, as things stand today, he will be the professor, the manager, the supervisor of tomorrow.

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