What happens when you choose a job where you are the only woman in your regional office? You face it fearlessly, says Kashish Sharma, a woman engineer working with the Indian Railways.
Meet Kashish Sharma, an Inspection Engineer at Oriental Consultants India Pvt. Ltd, based in Ajmer. Her typical day is at the railway station inspecting tracks, making repairs, and ensuring that she navigates successfully through all the risks of her job. We speak to this 23-year-old to understand more about her choices and what works for her in a very traditional, male-dominated industry.
Excerpts from our conversation with Kashish
When most people think of a railway inspection engineer, the image that comes to their mind would be typically a male engineer. And here you are, a woman engineer, choosing to be in this career. Please share with us your decision-making journey in choosing a non-conventional career.
From childhood itself, I have always imagined what my future would be like. I thought I would be working in a factory with heavy machinery everywhere. I wanted to get into Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and was fixated on this goal for 6 years. Space technology was my choice and I thought that after my engineering course, I would drop a year to prepare for the exam. At this time, my father who was in the Armed Forces was posted in Kashmir, my younger brother was studying in Ajmer and as I had chosen to take a break, I decided to return to Ajmer to stay with my grandfather. My parents were very adamant that I do not drop a year and so I was pushed into looking for a job. My grandfather had worked in Indian Railways and retired as Deputy Chief Engineer, Jaipur Division, and knew about various job openings. He told me about this job, and I applied for it and I made it after a very rigorous interview process.
The railways is a very complex and difficult field as the technology used is not taught in any school or college. All my learning has been hands-on. When I joined, I was the only woman on site, in fact, the only woman in the office. My job involved checking everything under my jurisdiction – right from a small cable to a big machine. The first six months were difficult – not because I was new but because I was a woman.
How difficult was it for you to break into a male-dominated career? Can you tell us about some of the situations you faced and how did you break through those?
The initial months were trying. I felt like I was trapped in some kind of jelly and this jelly was made up of the constant doubt, judgment, and fear of people on whether I could do the job or not. My colleagues were not used to a woman being on the job and managing things. So, to work with me was a different equation altogether. People used to openly question how good I would be in the workplace and whether I could handle the pressures that came with it. It used to get to me and bother me. Even when I would do what was expected of me, I would be criticized, and approval would be withheld. This mentality lasted for 6 months.
However, one of the many things that helped me through this period was the support and encouragement of my immediate bosses. I also made sure that I performed to the best of my ability and people could see that I meant business. My priority was getting my work done and getting it done well. People started coming around slowly when they saw the results. I managed to build trust and transparency and soon employees from other offices started calling me for advice. I was so involved in my work, so committed to doing everything right that people sat up and took notice of me. Today, I am left on my own while on-site as the confidence in my abilities has grown. I stopped bothering about what was being said and concentrated on my job.
"What really helped me was the realization that you can’t please everyone, you can’t change everyone’s point of view. What you can change, though, is your reaction to it. I wanted to be proud of myself and I am for what I have achieved."
— KASHISH SHARMA
Pressure and expectations are part and parcel of any job today. Have you ever been put in this position and if so, what are the strategies you used to cope?
The only problem was being targeted for being a woman. Part of my job involves climbing 35-meter-tall towers. So, when I had to do this, I was told that there were many risks involved, like falling and hurting myself. I felt that this was an eventuality that could happen to anyone climbing a tower. I told my colleague that if he felt being a woman was the reason, I shouldn’t do it, he should send me an email stating this. I had decided to forward that mail to my superiors to inform them why I was being stopped from doing my job. My superiors came to my rescue and told me to go ahead. That day, I climbed two towers – not just one!
I feel you must fight back and not give in under pressure, especially if you are not doing anything wrong. Stay focused on your work, stay positive, and be determined.
At the end of the day, we are professionals and should be treated as such. You should also find a mentor or someone who has your back. That support is very important. I have always had my superiors’ support. They are my people. I love my work because of them.
What are the advantages of looking beyond a traditional career path?
I have grown to love this job. The fear of being in a path that hasn’t been trodden will always be there. I would say the biggest advantage is the confidence you gain in yourself. Whenever I make big decisions in my life, even career oriented, I remember that there is a first for everything. Don’t let society guide you. Lead by example and empower yourself. You have to forge your own path in life.
Being here among uncertainty has made me realize that I can actually do everything. Whether I fail or not, I can still try. When you don’t try, you are guaranteeing a 100% failure, but when you try, it takes away 50% of the chance of failing.
Do share some insights into how women can break away from the standard job set and carve a niche for themselves in other fields as well.
I would sum it up in two points:
Listen to your own fears and not the fears of the world - that is the most important thing.
Instead of focusing and making a list of what could happen, rather make a list of what should be happening. When you focus on what should be happening, you are walking onto a path of growth. Many times, you are restricting yourself and putting hurdles in your own path. The world does it to you anyway. You need to be the one to have faith in yourself. Think positive and you will see things working in your favor.