This woman in tech and all that

In 1964, I was a young girl living in Varanasi, India. My father owned a business in that town, across from a movie studio called Prakash Talkies. The movie place always had gigantic posters of garishly pained actresses with gigantic heaving breasts making coy faces. Occasionally my cousin, Pammi and I would sneak in to watch the movie, without paying. It was hard to do, but we did it more than a few times.

Right outside the theater, was a magazine stand and here on every 30th of the month, I would approach the seller, whom I knew well, and he me, as this would happen every single month on the 30th. I would ask him if my favorite magazine issue had arrived. He would tell me, NO, come back tomorrow. But he did have the latest issue of the magazine, I could see it in a bundle all tied up. But he liked to toy with me, he didn’t want to me to have the magazine until the 1st of the month! Disappointment! I would return the next day to pay my one rupee (or my be it was two annas) to get my hands on that precious magazine. And that magazine was called Science World for Children or something like that. Hard to believe but I have forgotten the name. At the time, I looked forward each month.

How or why I loved science at that age and in that time (60’s) in India, I can’t say. Some of us are just born that way. My father’s business was in scientific supplies but that was about the only tenuous connection there was to science in my family. No one was into science in my family. No doctors, no engineers. No role models.

One day, a young man came man to visit our neighbor’s house. I happened to be there and heard him say that he was studying engineering at BHU (Benaras Hindu University, which is ITT now). Impressed. I told him that I too would like to be an engineer. He told me, what a silly idea I had. Girls do not become engineers. Being a little bit of a contrarian, even at that age, I told him that I could do it, that he would see me at the university in engineering school in a few years. He laughed. But he did see me there, just as I had promised. One of only four women engineering students in BHU in the year of 1966.

In February of 1967, I left, after only three months in the engineering school, to come to America to join my parents. We came to California where my father was professor of economics at the Cal State University in Fresno, CA. So I started engineering school at Fresno State University. I applied to UCLA but my parents would not allow me go live away from home. So Fresno it was. There was a very smart boy in my class who sat next to me in my Physics class. I was then 17 and he just a few years older having just returned from Vietnam. My parents were very conservative, a traditional Sikh family and although perfectly okay with me being the only girl in my classes surrounded by boys, did not allow me to date or to even talk to boys. Whether rebelliousness or something else, I did see this boy secretively. So at the age of 18, I married Del, age 23. We got married, to the great unhappiness of my parents and moved to San Luis Obispo to go to Cal Poly. Only because that’s where he wanted to go. I just followed him.

My college years were wonderful. Although I was the only girl in all my classes, I was treated no differently than any one else. I had no sense as to what would happen in the real working world when I graduated, although I was told once or twice that it would be hard for me to find a job. Of course, I did not believe them. In my senior year, I interviewed with a few companies, most rejected me telling me that their engineers would never accept a woman co-worker. This was a shock. I told them that I was in an engineering school for four years and no one had found any problems with me at school. I was a good student and had done well. But these were politically incorrect times and people said what they thought. So dim job prospects despite my new degree.

Then in March of 1972, I got a call again from the McDonald Douglas company for a interview, after having been rejected previously. I entered the Employment Office or whatever they used to call those departments then, and sat and waited. They had just gotten a huge new contract. In the waiting room, on the wall was a big black board on which was written “Goal for 1972 – Hire five women engineers”.

Affirmative Action had arrived! The doors opened, I finally had my first job as a real engineer with the coveted title of MTS I. (Member of Technical Staff) I was one of the first beneficiaries of Affirmative action. I owe my first job to it, so I won’t slam it. It was needed at that time. But those door didn’t just open, they busted open wide and stayed open for me, and, for every other woman who aspired to be an engineer, for all of my 45 years as an engineer.

In 1977, I vividly remember a scene while I worked at Northrop in Hawthorn. I had to inspect a part that was being installed on a F-5 jet being built in the factory. I walked to the factory, walked to the area where this particular jet was being worked on by a team. I presented myself to the supervisor, who then took a microphone and announced loudly into the large hangar, “Move away from the airplane, the Engineer (me!) here.” Every one stopped working, stood respectfully at a distance while with the supervisor, I inspected the part, and they did what I told them. Me, then a mere 26 year year old girl from a foreign land, getting that kind of respect who five years earlier could not find a job, Times had changed and so fast!

I then started on a 45 year career, where I never looked back, never had to fight for titles or positions. What I earned or did not earn, it was because of my own efforts or lack there-off. I suffered no discernible discrimination, no harassment of any sort that held me back. Despite the fact that I am not white, it had no effect. If there were men who hindered me, there were four men for every one of those who stood to mentor me, help me, and to even offer me choice assignments preferentially over my male peers. This is an advantage that most women in STEM fields do not publicly talk about. But it existed then  and still exists. Now I hear women talking about how hard the tech world is for women, but this has not been my experience, nor largely of the women I have worked with. And I have worked in real engineering, of jet, rockets, factories, space shuttle and satellites. The hardware kind. (Yes, I don’t think software engineering, is engineering!) I found the work environment fair and welcoming. As you can see in this article, engineering is a modern industry and, as a result, there is rarely a shortage of exciting job opportunities. I like to think that I always made as much money as my peers if not more, and never less. And not because I was a great negotiator, but because that is the kind country America is. Merit is recognized and rewarded. For many years in the 80’s I did independent consulting. The companies that hired me to work, would get no credit for my gender nor race, and yet I had many many consulting jobs, with big and little companies, because I could do the work. I did not find any barriers. All  barriers and problems were always of my own making. One of those was my desire to put my family life above my career.

I chose not to pursue the management path for this reason. I did not want to supervise people nor travel a great deal, of which I did a great deal at Aerospace Corporation. Although at one time, I had thought that I would like to be “leader of men”.  I chose to stay instead in actual engineering, the so called technical path. This choice made it possible for me to have time and energy to live a balanced home life. I had two children, a girl and a boy.

Unfortunately (or perhaps not, as we all follow our karma) I was not able to convince my daughter to follow in my footsteps. Despite my purchasing all sorts of scientific toys, trucks and construction sets to encourage her, it was not to be. For me the lesson was, that each of us follows to a large extent our own destiny and the environment has a smaller emphasis than we would like to believe. I  had no encouragement at all, yet became an engineer and, my daughter,  would reject this path! My son did follow in my foot steps and is now a wi-fi engineer at Apple. He and I just finished writing out first book together. We are now working on our next book.

I ended my career last year with title of Distinguished Engineer from Loral Space Systems. This is a fine and wonderful country where fairness is the norm. Ignore the ill will being spread by the misguided. Be careful what you dream here, as in America dreams usually come true. No one needs to make this country great. It always has been and will continue. It has the right values.

3 comments on “This woman in tech and all that
  1. Scott Siclari says:

    What a great and wonderful story! How wonderful of you to share too! I really wish I worked with more engineers like you, not just because of your gender and diversity, but because of your attitude, love of the field and your willingness as well as ability to teach and understand complex technical subjects. Your penetrating story and career example is exemplary for women as well as anybody else thinking of or pursuing an engineering career. Furthermore, you’re making a difference in childhood learning too!

    • Charan L. says:

      What a wonderful moment for me when I read your comment. You are extremely generous to say so.

      As I said somewhere, we are at the pinnacle of human achievement and should be proud of our accomplishment at making life better for the world. I am sorry to see our field get so slammed lately.

      Best, Charan

  2. Richard (Rick) Lyons says:

    Hi Charan. (I enjoyed reading your blog.)

    You wrote: “How or why I loved science at that age and in that time (60’s) in India, I can’t say. Some of us are just born that way.” Your words are meaningful. I believe there’s “something” different about the brains of engineers compared to the brains of people not interested in engineering. I’m not smart enough to define what that “something” is, but I believe it exists.

    For example, think of the question: “Why are raindrops in the shape of little spheres instead of little cubes or little pyramids?” Engineers enjoy learning the answer to that question whereas most people have no interest at all in the answer.

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