I am writing this on Women in STEM day. I’m one of those women, and I’ve never really thought about it before. Why is it that women still aren’t routinely considering STEM as a career path, and what can we do- all of us- to change this?
For those of you who don’t collect acronyms, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I’m happy to count myself as one of those women. I graduated in 1998 with a BSc (Hons) in Audio Technology, one of only three women in my year. Since then I’ve worked in a variety of male dominated environments, both in the consultancies where I’ve been based, and in the design teams and on the construction sites of which I’ve been a part.
It’s not something to which I give a lot of thought in my day to day life. I’m often more comfortable in the presence of men, and there are times when being the female at the table can be an advantage, either because of an ability to calm the atmosphere, or the ‘talent’ to command attention, sometimes by acting in a less than ladylike manner! I’ve never felt that my career has suffered because of my gender, or that I have been treated differently because of it. In my younger days I was occasionally assumed to be the secretary, or the most junior member of the team, but grey hair and wrinkles is making this a less common assumption, and I feel at home sitting in a room full of men discussing the relative merits of different industrial equipment suppliers, as I did this morning.
Slowly, slowly, more women are appearing at the table. But certainly in acoustic consultancy we remain strongly in the minority, and nobody seems to understand why.
The baby problem?
Of course, much has been said in recent years about the costs of childcare and the conflicting roles of the mother and career woman. Many of the women I’ve worked with haven’t returned to work after having children which I can understand; it’s a battle! Returning to work for me meant spending more on childcare and travel than I was actually earning, and being paid for part time hours whilst effectively carrying out a full time job late into the night because I didn’t want to feel I was ‘letting anyone down’.
Organisations in the construction and engineering sector with a genuinely useful set of policies and flexible working to support mothers returning to work are few and far between. I’ve variously been told that my job couldn’t possibly done part time or flexibly (turns out it could, just somewhere else!), or had my requests for flexible working grudgingly approved not because a company wants to support me, but because the law prevents them from saying no.
None of this made me a more effective employee. It should be a no-brainer that women are going to perform better if they feel supported. The employers I have felt the most loyalty to are not those who will see me as a ‘resource’ to be drained, they are the ones who understand that I produce my best work when I’m happy and relaxed. The fact that this is still a rarity is certainly one of the big issues in our industry.
It’s true that the lack of childcare in our workplaces, the impossibility sometimes of being able to skip a meeting or site visit to make the school run or to look after a sick child, are issues. There’s a conflict which I have experienced between being simultaneously expected to be the nurturing parent, and the professional engineer who can attend site at a moment’s notice. But whilst resolving these issues would help to retain more women, I don’t think they are what stops us from following these career paths in the first place.
Men in Suits
I founded dBx Acoustics three years ago, not because I felt that I was in any way disadvantaged by my gender, but because I felt I could create a happier and more collaborative environment than I experienced in larger organisations.
In retrospect, I do wonder whether the environment I am rebelling against was a product of working in organisations run and dominated by middle aged men in suits. It seems that sometimes when we (both men and women) “suit up”, we lose something of our humanity and instead start to play a role, the corporate drone that we think we should be. Perhaps unconsciously, we then go on to recreate the models that we’ve seen go before us rather than seeking to disrupt and improve the workplace.
I’ve sat in rooms full of be-suited men who have wondered aloud how to attract more women into STEM, seemingly unable to resolve the image problem that they themselves are propagating. It’s one of the reasons why you’ll only rarely catch me suited and booted myself. A big career lesson which I wish I had learnt sooner is that trying to hide who you are, behind clothes and actions, doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself. Just because you aren’t necessarily what people expect you to be doesn’t mean you are wrong.
So yes, the men in suits problem could well be part of it. No 16 year old girl choosing their A-levels is going to be inspired by the thought of spending the day shut in a stuffy meeting room with some men and a packet of Sharpies (well, not many). But again, I don’t think this is the root of the issue.
Who do you want to be?
I believe that the problem lies further back, in our formative experiences, with our schools and even more strongly with our parents. We still live in a world where toys are labelled as being for boys and girls, pink and blue. In so many households it’s still dad who will fix the broken things and put together the IKEA furniture, and mum who will do the cooking and the laundry. We replicate the patterns we saw in our own parents, which they in turn inherited, and we don’t question them.
I’m not suggesting that we overthrow the patriarchy, that women should throw down their saucepans and refuse to do anything more until they have been allowed to put up a garden shed. What each of us is good at, and what each of us chooses to focus our energies on, is really nobody else’s business. But we do need to be aware that our actions and words influence our children, and in the same way as I would never describe myself as fat or mention dieting in front of my daughter, I would also never say that something technical would have to wait until daddy gets home.
My parents always told me, “you can be anything you want to be”. Such a simple phrase, but one which shaped me and has stayed with me. Even when I arrived home from school with dreams of being an astronaut, or the Prime Minister, or even both simultaneously, they never pooh-poohed my ideas or suggested that perhaps only men should aspire to fly Nimrods in the RAF. I was lucky enough to go to a school where a similar message existed, and our ambitions were encouraged, whether technical or artistic.
This simple message is what shaped me, and it’s why I work in STEM today. It’s because I wanted to follow this path, and because I never doubted for a minute that I could. I believe it’s this which is missing from the lives of our children and it would be so easy to change.
You can be anything you want to be, but always be yourself.