We went to school together. This was the 90s in India. That phrase ‘engineers are boys’ was a thing, even a tacit norm. Komal Singh, among the few girls who chose non medical science as a subject, was exposed to society’s pre-boxed ideas of what women should do. Like all of us back then. While Komal didn’t think much of it three decades ago, motherhood changed it all. When her daughter (born in 2014) said the same thing to her – “Engineers are boys” Komal wanted to shatter such notions and got down to writing a book for her daughter and other young girls to believe otherwise and in themselves. That’s how Ara The Star Engineer was born.

Komal is a techie by day and a storyteller mom by night – one who loves coding and cupcakes, data crunching and day dreaming, pottery making and program planning. She has been working in the tech sector for over a decade and is currently an Engineering Program Manager at Google. In this interview I talk to my friend about how writing this book is as much about her children as it a journey through her own life.

Ara The Engineer Komal SinghWhat’s the story behind Ara The Star Engineer?

Being a woman in tech, a person of colour, and a storyteller mom, I had always felt a huge gap exists in childrens’ books for a genre that would introduce computing concepts to kids in a whimsical manner, and in parallel showcase amazing women engineering trailblazers. Something that would be fun but also address the overarching issue of lack of representation in STEM. I had been toying with the idea of writing such a book for a couple of years, but it was when my daughter said to me, “Engineers are boys”, that I was really bummed and got neck deep into creating an empowering STEM book.

Life has taught me, by building a team, and “collaborating” with people you can really knock it out of the park – Komal Singh, author, Ara The Star Engineer

It’s one thing to bust myths for your child and quite another to put together a book that many other children can benefit from. When were you certain the book was the way?

I have always felt that books are like “windows” (reflection) of our current world and “doors” (pathways) for the future world, for children and grown-ups. If there’s one thing my daughter and I do everyday is read a book at bedtime — it’s great bonding time, and provides an opportunity for direct impact. I wanted to respect this sacred storytime b/w parents and their children by creating a meaningful book they could read together, and that would gently shift their thought patterns.

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While I still am not certain this is ‘the way’ to do it, this is what made sense to me. Combined with the fact that less than 5% kids books (in the west) feature people of colour in lead roles or are written by such authors [Lee & Low, The Guardian]. And that research shows girls start doubting their STEM intelligence as early as 6 yrs old [Atlantic]. These staggering stats played a role in making me write such a book, to move the dial.

This is book is as much about you, as it is about your daughter. How was it growing up to be an engineer?

The story is about a young girl, Ara, who’s on a quest to count all the stars (for she loves big numbers). During her journey she discovers an algorithm of success — courage, creativity, code, collaboration. There’s a parallel with my career journey.

I grew up in India in a defence services setup — my dad was an engineer and my mom a homemaker and very creative. And thus, exposure to technical know-how was always imbibed in me, as well as exposure to artsy things. My dad would always quiz us on physics/math theorems and I’d love reading book on spy fiction and science fiction. Even so, because I did not grow up seeing women in engineering leadership roles, I subconsciously believed that excelling in STEM fields was a man’s forte. I was fortunate that my parents provided me the “courage” to take up whatever path I wanted, even though this was the less beaten road. Problem solving needs “creativity”, be in with lego blocks that I played with as a kid, or while managing teams as a software engineer. I learned how to “code” first during high school, and then during grad/undergrad/work. And of course life has taught me, by building a team, and “collaborating” with people you can really knock it out of the park!

The world has just made a start when it comes to talking of tech women heroes. What will it take to broaden this conversation to children across the world?

Representation: of minorities in books, media, real life workplaces. And thus increased exposure of such enriched channels to children (which they absorb everyday).

Encouragement: a parent/mentor (woman or otherwise) who acts as an anchor or a reference point that children can always ‘count’ on for sound advice and guidance.

Levelled access to resources: make resources such as coding games, hands-on tech activities, maker-spaces, equally available to children of all genders (girls, boys, non-binary). Avoid gendered play and preferences.

Your book reasons why girls should get exposure to tech and engineering very early. How much of the problem lies in our education system?

Ara The Star Engineer SheThePeople
Ara The Star Engineer

More than the education system, I feel it’s the implicit/unconscious biases that we harbour are the culprit. It’s easier for us all to visualize engineers, CEOs, founders, innovators, as men and thus that gets translated into the language we use with kids (“I met an amazing start-up founder today, and he gave a great keynote”) and the stereotype becomes self-fulfilling in books that get written or the media shows that get produced. It’ll be great if teachers and mentors can take more deliberate steps in schools to avoid gendered play and broaden the literature that kids read to include non-conforming roles (e.g engineers are girls, families can be made of two moms). But this too needs training and time…we’ll get there!

Also, when it comes to tech, it’s important for the curriculum to be more hands-on rather than theoretical — so kids can build things, break it, build it again. This makes them discover the ‘joys’ and ‘positive impact’ of innovating and inventing early on.

Optimize for persistence over perfection — take the first step first, and you never know where that’ll take you – Komal Singh, author, Ara The Star Engineer

We at SheThePeople have a big focus on #STEMGIRLS – do you see a difference in how girls in India think about the gender bias in engineering and the way those say America or Canada look at it?

Hmmm yes I think in India, in general, there’s more focus on pursuing tech fields; however this may not necessarily be due to this being their passion or first-choice. In the West, the representation of girls studying/pursuing tech is even lesser, but I think they are the ones (in general) who feel passionately about it.

Also, I feel children/youth here in the West are raised to be more individualistic, so perhaps it’s bit easier for them to fight/ignore the pseudo cultural demands and thus bust the biases.

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Lastly, the same point above about curriculum being practical — in general, kids here are exposed more to things such as coding platforms, hackathons, maker-spaces, so they discover the joys of building and innovating early on, which makes them stick!

Personally for you, what goals has this book accomplished?

It has filled a gap in the childrens’ book industry — by being an inspiring, inclusive and whimsical way to learn about computing from real-life engineering trailblazers. It has sparked kids curiosity and interest in STEM. I’ve had parents tell me “my daughter wanted to write an algorithm to feed the cats”, or “my son has been troubleshooting all the gadgets in the house”.

It has given girls real-life role models (of diverse ethnicities) to aspire to be, and relate with. A parent told me “my daughter was so curious about the ‘cybersecurity princess’ who fights all the black-hat hackers and wants to be like her”.

I feel elated the book will act as a tool in creating the next generation of (girl!) leaders in tech.

Your one advise to women and girls in India who want to take up STEM subjects, at any different point of their lives and make a beginning?

Optimize for persistence over perfection — take the first step first, and you never know where that’ll take you.

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