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The CataLyst: Let’s Talk About Role Models

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:

You can’t be what you can’t see.

To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.

The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.

The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.

The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured.  It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):

  1. The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
  2. The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.

Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.

To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.

Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.

What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?

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  • Cristina
    February 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Reading with interest as a non-STEM-er now working in a school…especially about the first 2 types of role model you mention. I would say get into schools, get into staffrooms. I’m so glad you had that kind of input that young. During school I was actively DIScouraged from taking a science (biology) at A-Level because ‘it would involve maths and chemistry’ (at which I was average, but certainly not bombing); had my attention to maths and chemistry been drawn in the context of an area of interest, these subjects would very likely have been less terrifying and my motivation and curiosity could well have been sustained enough through school for that not to be an issue. Had a maths teacher been able to help me understand, early on, the connection between maths and the world, I probably would have been more inspired rather than developing a mental block by writing it off as ’not my thing’.

    The patterns of thinking start so early on: I entered – and left – secondary school believing that I was more creative than academic. This proved not necessarily true…but thinking back, it was only in the arts subjects that I had teachers who inspired and encouraged me to understand and apply the subject outside of the curriculum. Not that this is the teachers fault – an education system so focused on targets and box-ticking a curriculum does not allow time for the cultivation of interest holistically. If a student isn’t interested, they aren’t motivated to understand. If they don’t understand, they can’t ’do’. If they can’t ’do’, they ’aren’t good at it’, and if they ’aren’t good at it’ they will likely lose interest even more (because who enjoys being ’bad’ at something?). Unlike many arts subjects, STEM entry requirements are more specific. The choices made by students at a very young age determine what routes for progression are available to them much later, and without encouragement to continue and achieve in these areas those possible routes can be closed off far too early.

    Barring a full reform of the way we approach education (!), I think having real world, real life input in schools to help teachers provide context to what they teach would be a fantastic place to start. By providing role models who are able to demonstrate the vast array of opportunities in these fields, and the relevance of their work to the real world instead of some abstract illustration in a textbook, could be helpful not just for the uptake of women into those industries but in general. A further push to make the women who are enjoying success in those fields visible and accessible would be fantastic: had a geneticist been on hand to inspire me at 16 years old, I may not be reading this blog as an ’outsider’! ☺

  • Catariya Lundgren
    February 27, 2014 at 12:20 am

    Thanks for the comment! Never really thought of it from the point of view of someone who felt like they didn’t have the right support. It’s difficult when you’re young to try and convince adults you can do something you’re interested in, if they’ve already stereotyped you…

    The whole education system does need reform, but in the meantime (as I don’t think that will happen anytime soon) it is really important for people and organisations to go into school and offer mentors and guidance.

    I was very close to choosing history at uni if it hadn’t been for that chemistry teacher I had!

  • The CataLyst: The Myth About Maths
    March 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

    […] of girls’ lack of confidence in themselves. This makes me think sometimes even the best role models cannot counteract the societal and cultural pressures faced by girls. There may be a clear link […]

  • Chymere A.
    June 30, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Everything Cristina said, I co-sign. I too was lead to believe that I was not good at math and science and because I believed that, I never had the motivation to challenge those parts of my brain, not even realizing that being creative is not always limited to the arts. At some point, I began to question what I once believed to be true about myself and how I acquired information. To my surprise, I had a learning disability all along and now I better understand how to apply myself better.

    An important facet that both of you mentioned is exposure. There is a Kick-Starter project that I’m sure you’ve heard about, called Goldie Box. It’s basically a toy set to encourage girls to be engineer and deviates from the normal thing young girls are used to playing with. Rather than stuffing their minds with princess ideology, we are infusing more stimulated work through the toys they play with. There is nothing wrong with embracing our physical beauty, but it’s also to teach them that their minds are also beautiful; that they can be women and still be inventors and scientist and engineers. Subtle exposure all they way up to what and how they learn in the classroom.

    My main inspiration to stay or even go into engineering was my mom. She is my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd type of role model. She, having a degree in chemical engineering, never forced me to go into anything, but fully supported me when I was trying to figure out what field I wanted to go into. She helped me see what I was capable of when I put my mind to doing something. She also helped me realize that I didn’t have to take on the labels other people restricted me to. Of course, there were other people in my life who guided me throughout this entire journey and I’m so thankful for each and every one of them.

    Great article!

  • Chymere A.
    June 30, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Ps- I am currently an engineering student.

  • Catariya Lundgren
    July 1, 2014 at 12:41 am

    I completely agree that the earlier girls are introduced to all these things the better. I don’t believe in forcing people into fields that they’re not interested in, but the issue today is that for many girls, the option isn’t even on the table. And by the time they find out that STEM is an option, they’ve already been told that they can’t do it.

    It’s great to hear from you and how you manage to overcome the things that have held you back in the past. Goldie Box is a great initiative, and generally toys that are suited to both boys and girls (which is every toy really – after all they’re kids, they can play with anything!) will provide more options and a broader foundation for all children.

    Thanks again for reading!