Gender and Culture Collide in India

By Andrea Mott

Being a female mechanical engineering student, I am no stranger to being the sole woman in a room. It was a fact I had to accept the first day of new student orientation, when I found myself one of four women in a classroom of young, eager mechanical engineering students. It was a fact during my first internship at an injection molding manufacturing company where I found myself surrounded by middle-aged men. I did not want to be known as a female engineer but just as an engineer.

I traveled to India this summer on an ETHOS immersion. ETHOS (Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service-Learning) is a program at UD that sends students to developing countries to work on engineering projects. I spent three months in Auroville, India, working on building a 6m tall 3D printer aimed at creating cob houses. India seemed to have different expectations of women within society. My awareness of gender differences began the moment I had to go through security at the airport when men and women were separated into different lines.

I am a tall, white, blonde, blue-eyed female, so I stood out in India, regardless of my job. I was surrounded by harsh gender differences all summer, like when waiters would be confused as to why I did not have a male companion to order for me. I dressed conservatively, making sure my legs and chest were covered. My belief in gender equality clashed with the Indian cultural norms I encountered.

I quickly learned that if I wanted respect or attention regarding work, I would have to demand it. I had to appear strong, confident, firm, and correct? or risk dismissal. An American girl walking into a hardware store asking for 12mm bolts? Intriguing, if anything. Curious stares followed me everywhere, making me feel scrutinized. Yet, I was unwilling to let my discomfort prevent me from completing my job.

Many Americans upon my return were quick to assume that I was treated poorly because I was female in India. However, I never felt mistreated by the incredibly kind, hospitable Indian culture, even though I did not fit into the gender norm. While I had to demand the attention and respect that I thought I deserved, I was never treated in an intentionally rude way.

My summer was filled with an interesting collision of cultural, gender and personal ideologies. Even in America, we witness division in engineering between men and women, and India has a vastly different culture possessing much greater gender divisions. My experience as an American female engineering student in India exposed me to these harsh gender differences. While challenging, I believe I learned powerful lessons that will follow me throughout my life as a mechanical engineer.

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