I spent four days this past week traveling through Middle Zealand. It was a crazy times work trip, focussed on recruiting new talent. We did the same trip last year as a family, but did it quite differently. Last year we spent two weeks driving from Queenstown to Auckland, stopping at several small and large cities along the way. This year was the whirlwind version where we landed, went to work, ate, slept, woke, ate, worked, ate, worked, ate, slept, flew, worked, ate, worked, ate, slept, flew back home. But it was still amazing.
As part of our trip we organize talks for young women in STEM programs. The rate of enrollment of women in these fields is quite low, like 5-10%, so a lot of the ladies feel isolated or ‘weird’ or that they don’t fit in. As part of our trip, we organize a three hour workshop to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in tech, to meet other ladies in your faculty, and to get some extra tips and encouragement about their work prospects. Chatting with the attendees is always mega rewarding. You get to meet women who were about to drop out or change programs and have decided to stay in because they made a friend. Or people who met with us last year and are pumped to tell us how well their last year of school has gone, or the super cool project they are working on.
The stats around the gender divide in STEM careers are amazing. Many of them are simply baffling to me when I look at them from a more removed or academic stance, but they make a lot more sense when you meet the people who say these things. One young lady told the group that she struggled to enroll because her primary motivation for wanting to become an Engineer was that she wanted to be Tony Stark. She had a hard time saying that out loud to her family. Eventually, she did enroll and when the rest of her extended family found out, she got a call from her Grandma who wanted to know what was wrong. To me, wanting to be Iron Man seems like a great reason to enroll in engineering; maybe even Top 5 (after wanting to be Batman of course) but meeting her, and listening to her talk, it’s just not a valid reason for everyone.
At one of these talks I also bumped into a friend of a friend, of all the weird places to meet someone. A woman put her hand up at one of the events to tell us how she felt like an outsider even in a room filled with female engineers because she was studying Music Engineering. Most people had no idea what that meant, which seemed to validate her point, so I went up to chat during the break to let her know that she wasn’t alone. I took some courses in that area in school, and studied with Professor so-and-so. Turns out, her advisor also studied with So-and-so, further, she had done her masters with a long time friend of Sarah’s (and mine) in California. We chatted for a long time, and eventually I was able to introduce her to some other people on campus who are interested in collaborating on some projects. Small world.
Finally, the other thing I did while abroad was give another lecture at a technical college on the south island. Two years running now I’ve worried about what to present, or what might be interesting. This year, the instructor asked me to just walk the students through a project that I’d done. “How boring!” I thought, and yet, the room was full and the crowd seemed to enjoy themselves. I even got an invite to speak again in October, which I will probably follow up on.