Being a Brown Woman in Nuclear Engineering – Serish Tanya Hussainnotyourwife1214
I never really chose to study chemical engineering, I think the degree chose me. I had been solely focused on studying medicine, primarily to keep up expectations and to study something everyone would be proud of, as quite a lot of brown women do. But I hated biology, I didn’t enjoy working with people, and I cried in all the interviews I had with patients. I loved chemistry though and engineering seemed like an unknown world to me at 18. So I took a leap of faith and decided to study chemical engineering.
Now, when people say there aren’t enough women in engineering, they really mean, there are NO women in engineering. I walked into my first lecture and was incredibly overwhelmed by the intense testosterone in the room, there were around 30 women out of the 300 men. As a brown woman who went to an all girls school, you could say the experience was strange. There were about 4 brown women, and 2 were on the same course as me, thankfully with engineering we have a splurge on international students which makes the course seem ever so slightly more diverse. The degree itself is intense, the heavy workload, the countless exams and the concepts of chemistry were a world away from the core chemistry studied at school, but this was nothing in comparison to the social aspect of uni.
The degree itself has been one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve endured, for all the wrong reasons. As a woman, you get talked over in group meetings, side swiped by supervisors, ignored and taken advantage of (I once had to write someone else’s portion in a group project and didn’t say anything). But as a woman of colour, the dynamic shifts, I was asked about my ethnicity and where I was from, really from. I have met colleagues who have expressed their concerns as women of colour and our experiences have been equally distressing but very different. I would get other students marvelling at the fact that I wasn’t thinking of marriage or that I could speak English in a British accent. Unfortunately though, the ignorance continues on a higher level, which was an altogether different experience, I was asked by the same supervisor every year whether I was a foreign student or on a visa, as if the fact that I was a British citizen was entirely impossible to believe. Thankfully, having other women of colour on the degree made it ever so slightly more bearable. We gained confidence from each other instead of our peers or supervisors and we pushed ourselves to achieve everything we wanted to.
As if the lack of diversity wasn’t enough, I then decided halfway through my degree to specialise in nuclear, where there were 20 students and I was the only woman of colour. By then though, it hadn’t phased me. I started speaking up more, contributing more and believing in myself. I took two summer internships at the university through the last two years of my degree and seeing more bame women made me realise that we need a change. There needs to be a shift in the thought process by what the university called diversity. When a professor mentioned how diverse the room was or how integrated the lectures had become, there was a singular focus on women. Unfortunately there is a sing of praise when we see more women come into stem but the concept of diversity is not fully understood. We need more women yes, but what about women of colour?
I graduated with an Meng in chemical and nuclear engineering and was offered a phd in nuclear engineering with a full scholarship at the university. I primarily took it because I was so incredibly tired of the lack of diversity across the board, I wanted brown girls to see someone who looked like them in an effort to show them to believe in themselves. I wanted to show the university what a brown girl could do, and after two years and constant self doubt, I have published a paper. I still get asked where I’m from, whether I’m the PA in the room, when I last went to Pakistan or if I find it tricky to balance a family life and studies. But, I know how much I have achieved and I know how much we have achieved as women of colour in engineering.
It was midway through my phd that I found out I was the first woman of colour to graduate in chemical and nuclear engineering. The concept to me was unsurprising, but when I realised what that truly meant I had never felt so proud in myself. I broke the glass ceiling and I am proud of myself for everything I am doing and will do. I will continue to push myself throughout the self doubt and imposter syndrome. But we need more, I want to see more women of colour in my seminars, conferences, lectures and maybe when the representation is there, the ignorance will not be as overpowering anymore.
By Serish Tanya Hussain