Hi, my name is Kate and I am a software engineer.

Recently on twitter @lyndit posed the question:
“Any tips on encouraging my 16 year old niece to consider engineering?”

And that got me thinking, what was it that actually encouraged me to pursue a career in math and science?  And so I sat and thought about all the little moments that pushed me in one way or another.  You see, my path and direction were headed a certain way significantly before college (since I went to a college that graduated students *only* in the math and sciences).

In the end it came down to two things:

  1. I was good at math and science.
  2. I liked doing anything related to math and science.

And in large way both 1 & 2 fed on each other.

Perhaps a bit more background will help explain this more:

As a child I was a bit of a misfit, so much so that I often spent my lunch breaks playing bridge with the faculty in their lounge (technically students weren’t allowed in there, but I was picked on so much that someone felt sympathy on me and no one had the heart to kick me out).  I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my mom worked a lot of nights so this meant I spent a lot of time on my own.  Growing up the one time I did get attention, was when I did well on projects and classes.  My teachers and my mother would praise me on my school work, grades, and projects.  And it made me so happy, I did everything I could to achieve more of these accolades.

My mom always used to comment “Sammie [my sister] is the pretty one, and Katie is the smart one.”  And I clung to that compliment.  I defined myself on my academic and projects.  It was the one part of my life I could control that had a positive feedback loop.  Work harder, do better, get more recognition.  And I still am to this day very much a believer in hard work, goals and accomplishments.

It was this desire to do well that eventually pushed me into the sciences.  You see, those were the hardest classes in school, but also the ones I enjoyed the most.  I loved projects and most of the classes I took had labs, experiments, and reports – and these were my favorite kinds of projects.  Don’t get me wrong I did well in all my classes (I always had good grades) I just liked the science ones better.  I was more interested in the subject matter.

So why aren’t more ladies finding these subjects fascinating, the way that I did?  To be honest, I am not sure.  Here are a couple of possible explanations I have come up with:

  • They are more influenced by their friends.  I didn’t have friends and was a bit of a loner, so this wasn’t an issue for me.
  • My teachers encouraged me more.  One of the teachers I played bridge with taught physics and math, so in many ways I was much closer with them than my English teachers.
  • My child hood playmates were mostly boys.  So I spent a lot of time growing up playing army strategy games, acting like private detectives, reading Tolkien, and building forts.
  • My mom’s ideas of toys were work books, puzzles and science sets.  Doing math work books as a child taught me math was fun, so I always liked doing problems – even still as an adult.

So given all these details I decided that my advice, or tips as it were, boiled down to two things: exposure and encouragement.

When women are just girls, the key is exposing them to these things and then praising them or encouraging them to pursue them.  Obviously motivation has to come from within, but like a river creates a canyon, external forces can have a big impression.  So if you know a young lady you want to encourage to pursue engineering or another science, send them articles, do puzzles or other sorts of science experiments, and most importantly praise and applaud their progress.  It made a difference for me.


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