Last Tuesday was National Women in Engineering Day; you might have noticed the #NWED hashtag trending on Twitter. As part of the day, British Gas invited me and several other awesome bloggers to a panel discussion in London.
The panel was chaired by Dickon Ross, editor of Engineering and Technology Magazine, with four panelists: Claire Miles, the MD of British Gas Homecare; Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society, Dr Arti Agrawal, a lecturer at City University specialising in optical fibres, and Nadia Abbas, a British Gas engineer.
The discussion was really interesting; you can read the British Gas blog about the event here.
As the mother of a little girl who would rather cover herself in mud and blow raspberries than wear a dress and do “being pretty” I found this particularly interesting. I went to a girls’ grammar school where we were encouraged to study science and engineering, and anything else we wanted. There was never even the hint of a suggestion that girls shouldn’t do this kind of thing, or that we wouldn’t be able to get jobs in our chosen fields just because we were female.
But as mentioned by the panel, teachers can only do so much – the majority of influence over a young girl’s decisions comes from her parents and family life.
When I was little, I remember being “encouraged” to go to ballet lessons when I absolutely hated it. I remember having to wear dresses when all I wanted was to put my jeans back on. Luckily, I think my mum eventually gave up on trying to make me be a proper girl, and let me do as I pleased.
S chooses her own clothes, and although she does own dresses and skirts, nine times out of ten she will demand to wear only trousers. Still, she says her favourite colour is pink – and I’ve no idea where that has come from! I know people whose little girls are in pretty dresses every day, and I wonder how they manage to run and jump and play without tripping over them or ripping them. I know people whose little girls are not allowed to play with cars, because they’re boys’ toys. And I know people whose little girls are not allowed a Fireman Sam duvet because “those are for boys.”
After the main discussion, the panel took questions from the audience, and Kelly from Domestic Goddesque asked what she could do to encourage her daughters to consider careers in engineering. The answer was to encourage them to do things like the little kits you get from the science museum, to be curious about how things work. I think all children are born with that natural curiosity any way so it’s probably more a case of doing everything to keep it alive – something I don’t think our education system is set up for.
So then, with an education system determined to fit my child into a very specific hole of their choosing, so that she may learn by rote and regurgitate facts on test papers until the end of time, it’s up to me to ensure she remains curious and inspired and interested in the world around her.
How will I do that? By fostering her independent spirit. By letting her choose her clothes and have her say about what she eats and where we go and what we do. And by allowing her to say no when she doesn’t want to do something. By reading all sorts of books to her, but also by allowing her to make up her own stories.
It’s not that I want S to grow up and become an engineer; more that I want her to grow up knowing it’s an option, the same as becoming a fire fighter or a police officer or a scientist or even a ballerina if that’s what she really wants to do. I think all children, male and female, should have all options open to them. Be gay, be heterosexual, be celibate, be married, stay single, have children, don’t have children, be a scientist, be a fire fighter, be a writer, be an entrepreneur. The important thing is that we should encourage all children to be who they are rather than who anyone else thinks they should be. Then, perhaps when they are adults, they won’t need to celebrate National Women in Engineering Day – because it won’t be an issue.