Life in a Steel Plant

Work - Employed - Working in a steel plant-31 Loading

25 years ago when I chose to join a steel plant in small town West Bengal over a job in Calcutta, I was warned that a) life in a factory is not meant for girls and b) I was in for a culture shock, having grown up in a pretty liberal environment, family and education-wise. Of course, like any self-respecting 22 year old, I disregarded the advice and thought, as an engineer, a factory was where my life ought to be.

As the only female in a group of 24 Management Trainees (Technical) and the only one doing the rounds inside the factory units, I soon realized that I only had to exist to be controversial. Having spent all my student years happily in the shadow of good-looking friends, I often cringed at the amount of uncalled-for attention I was getting.

Soon, dealing with a whole lot of guys who had no idea how to deal with women colleagues, I divided them into 3 categories:

  1. The Indulgent – He took it upon himself to encourage me in my work and provide me with all support, usually because I reminded him of his daughter. He would often go overboard in his praise, much to the insecurity of my batch-mates. I’ve had fights with my bosses about refusing to accept some reward they thought I deserved. Someone, on being cornered, even ended up saying “Being the first female going around in safety hat and safety boots, you deserve something” as if my job did not entail wearing those!
  2. The Lecher – After a few months there, I had taken to doing the namaste instead of the handshake because of the endless hand pumping that I got. I learned to anticipate and duck from the fleeting hand coming out to run over my back (for God’s sake, did they do it to check if I had a bra on?). I came back from a three week long company sponsored foreign training and the first question my then boss asked me was if I had been to the red light area of Amsterdam!
  3. The Confused/Clueless – These people formed the majority. They were so embarrassed about having to deal with a woman that they would literally cringe in their seats and seldom make eye contact! The head of the first department I was assigned to initially refused to take me in and I spent one week sitting somewhere else and ‘counselling’ him every day, generally trying assure him that no harm would come to him from my presence. While walking in the factory premises, I was once stopped by a bewildered old Sardar asking me “Beti, tu sachmooch engineer hai?”  When I asked people to do their work in a different way (I was trying to revive all neglected pollution control equipment), not only was there palpable resistance, I actually heard someone mutter “So now I have to listen to a slip of a girl”…

This list came in very handy when I made it a point to welcome the handful of women engineers who joined after me, over the years.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nandini Bhattacharjee, 47, has lived in Kolkata, Durgapur, Hospet and now resides in Pune. She worked for 18 years in a steel plant mainly in environment management. Nandini has been a trainer for management training programmes for 21 years. She took an early retirement from 'paid' work and spends some time volunteering when she's not mentally wrestling with her teenage sons.

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