As part of my engagement with Karkhana I have been exploring various threads of thought around technology, amateur contributions to science and technology and the interplay between gender and STEAM. The passing of Vera Rubin, a critical astronomer of the last century, precipitated some connections between different strands of conversations I have been having here in Kathmandu with women in STEAM and Rubin’s own experience as a woman in science.
Irina, a research assistant at Karkhana, speaks about her years in engineering school with disdain. As she entered the final year and was introduced to hands-on and other practical usage of theories she had learned through the years, and she had finally begun to enjoy the course. Projects were her thing, she hadn’t fared particularly well with memorizing derivatives but she loved bringing theories to life by making. Her final project, a quadcopter, not only worked perfectly but also looked presentable. But instead of encouragement, her teachers raised doubts about whether she had done it herself.
Irina’s experience as a woman in engineering is not unique, nor is it particular to Nepal. Ayesha, a digital journalist currently studying at NYU, recalls that her group of male friends during University in Singapore, would without thinking delegate management and communication tasks to her while taking care of all the technical bits themselves. Like Irina, she too wasn’t given due credit for her competent final year project by her peers. When she got good grades for the project, the boys made allegations that the professor was nicer to girls. The hardest bit for her came during a dinner with her group of male friends. Everyone at the table shared that their families had big expectations from them. When it was Ayesha’s turn to share, she told them that as the eldest of the grandchildren, her family expected her to be a role model for the rest of the kids. To which one of her friends shot back, “But why? You’re a girl!”
Although both Irina and Ayesha have grown to love engineering and science, they’ve both had to put in double the work to be recognized as competent engineers.
I was recalling these conversations when I heard that Vera Rubin, the pioneering astronomer who is credited with discovering evidence for Dark Matter passed away two weeks ago. I was also thinking about one of Vera’s role models Maria Mitchell, another astronomer that she had known of but never met. In an interview in 1989*, Rubin said she never felt like a woman couldn’t become an astronomer because of the strong example Mitchell set for her. Mitchell– born nearly a century before Rubin– and working in a more conservative era, was known to have subverted the connotations behind women’s traditional skills such as needlework by seeing its usefulness not only in embroidery but also in bisecting stars with a micrometre. Rubin inherited this progressive attitude and was a great mentor for other women in science and technology.
Some of my reading on the Sociology of Science has given me a sense of the constraints Rubin and Mitchell lived through as women doing science and technology in their time. Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie archives the lives of several British women in professional astronomy in Obligatory Amateurs: Annie Maunder and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy.** Annie Maunder and her counterparts, Margaret Huggins (1849-1915), Agnes Mary Clerke, Mary A. Blagg (1858-1944) shared a common fate as women astronomers. Although they were published astronomers with professional experiences equivalent to male counterparts they were denied professional status and relegated to the identity of amateurs. Ogilvie accurately calls them “obligatory amateurs” for it wasn’t their lack of accomplishments that made them amateurs but the denial of professional identity by a male scientific community that did. Their success as astronomers also called for a set of sacrifices they made in their personal lives whether it was staying unmarried or not bearing children, burdens their male counterparts through generations have never carried. Even still, what worked in favour of these women was the fact that their early interest in astronomy and utter fascination with stars was enhanced by an enriching, intellectual environment at home.
What connects Annie Maunder and her peers with the lives of Irina and Ayesha are that all these women launched into technical careers with encouragement from their parents. Science and technology is the preferred choice of career for girls and boys in middle and upper-class families in Nepal. But this preference from parents is not matched with openness to women within engineering schools. Whether it is the lack of female role models and teachers or prejudiced male peers, aspiring women scientists and engineers face significant challenges.
With the right kind of environment and unconditional mentorship at Karkhana–by both male and female mentors– Irina has found her footing as an engineer and is now a mentor to other girls through initiatives such as the All Girl Coding Camp. Initiatives that aim to bring girls to the forefront of science and technology are growing in Nepal, the most successful of which are movements headed by Women Leaders in Technology and Women Lead Nepal. Although nascent, these efforts show that we are beginning to seriously consider producing mentors and creating safe learning spaces for women interested in science and technology
* Interview of Vera Rubin by Alan Lightman (1989), archived in American Institute of Physics website <https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33963>
**OGILVIE, MARILYN B. (2000).Obligatory amateurs: Annie Maunder (1868-1947) and British women astronomers at the dawn of professional astronomy,The British Journal for the History of Science,33 (1), 67-84.