As a child I was always good at maths and physics, and my enduring memory of Barbie dolls is taking them apart to find out how the joints worked. So, looking back, my choice to study Engineering seems like it was almost inevitable. Recently though, I’ve begun to wonder if it really was as certain as I once thought, and how easily I might have been swayed towards another career path had circumstances been different.
When I started at university, I couldn’t see any reason for women not to pursue a career in the sciences if that was what they wanted. Although the number of women studying traditionally male-dominated sciences was still small, it was going up. And in doing so, creating a large pool of women who I imagined would climb the ladder and begin to take on more and more of the senior roles, until we achieved equality. At the time it looked like the future was bright, and that it was a great time to be a woman entering science and technology.
Now, 14 years later, it’s disheartening to realise that the situation doesn’t really look that much different, except I’m now higher up the ladder and have a different view. There are plenty of young women studying Science and Engineering, but the senior women above me are still the exception rather than the rule. So instead of asking myself why other women weren’t pursuing careers in these areas, I started wondering how it is that I am. Inspired by Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers”, where he argues that the highly successful are the product of a specific set of circumstances, I began to think of the particular set of influences and circumstances I encountered that led me to pursue a career in technology.
My parents were perhaps the biggest influence, being supportive of anything I wanted to do. My mum wasn’t interested in science herself, but never once suggested that I shouldn’t do something because I was a girl. My dad has a lifelong love of technology and encouraged me and my younger brother and sister equally. Hence, I learnt to use a computer from a young age, when 5″3/4′ floppy disks were still state-of-the-art and our computer had 64K RAM. Early exposure to computers meant that I was comfortable with their inner workings long before PCs became commonplace.
My teachers, especially my 6th form maths and physics teachers, always believed in my ability to do whatever I put my mind to. They encouraged me to consider Engineering as a career, and provided practical information and support to help me make the decision.
My teenage friends also enjoyed maths and physics, so I didn’t feel much in the way of peer pressure towards the arts. It certainly helped that two of my close female friends at that time were also very smart, and it was the three of us who competed for top-of-the-class. Together, we had a credibility in science amongst our classmates that just one of us probably wouldn’t have managed.
I’ve also encountered many inspiring senior women in technology from female maths teachers to my tutors at university and some of my early bosses. These stood as examples to show that it is possible to be successful as a woman, even in male-dominated fields.
Amongst many nicer traits, I’ve been described as stubborn and unwilling to admit I might be wrong. While not hugely desirable characteristics, these have probably helped me to stick with my career choices when others might have given up. It never really occurred to me that I couldn’t succeed in Engineering, or that I should do anything else. But, looking back now, I wonder if I would have made the same choices had I not experienced the particular combination of supportive friends, family and teachers.