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“I’m probably not what you were expecting”: on being a female electronic engineer (British feminism series)

March 31, 2012 1 comment
I was very fortunate growing up;  I was able to make my own decision about what career I wanted. I was also fortunate that I went to a school where being a girl keen on studying science and maths wasn’t considered weird. Looking back now I realize how sheltered and unusual this was.

So aged 18 I moved 100 miles (give or take) from home and started my degree in electronic engineering at a Russell Group university. During freshers week I met my course mates and discovered how few other women there were.

For the record, most of the time my gender was never an issue and a lot of the things that happened that were negative passed over the heads of my colleagues until pointed out to them. A few examples:

* A lecturer welcoming the class with the statement “good afternoon gentlemen” then a pause and a begrudging “and ladies” ended with a sigh: totally unnecessary and hurtful.

* The lack of female toilets in most engineering departments means you have to walk a much longer distance (most buildings I’ve worked in were built in the 1950s and 1960s when this was never given any thought).

* Another female student had the regular experience that some male members of staff would never shut the door during meetings alone with her (apparently because of the way she dressed). Not okay for ensuring adequate pastoral care.

If you think any of these things are wrong, the truth is that you are a feminist.

The thing that cut me deeply was the teasing I was subjected to during my first year of study. The undermining comments of “you’re only here because you’re a girl and they need you to make the numbers up” or “you got an easier offer because you’re a girl” came phrased in a joking way and when I tried to stand up for myself I was told “it’s only a laugh; grow a sense of humour”. The worst thing was that part of me thought they could be right. It dented my confidence and I began to dress in a more masculine way – baggy jeans, loose t-shirts and hoodies were my uniform. I wanted to fit in by suppressing as much of my gender as I could so it couldn’t be used against me.

I made it though year 1 with decent grades and gained a lot of respect from my peers. For the first time I felt that I was there on merit and not some charity case. The anonymity of the exam paper and being known by only an ID number does have its advantages. My confidence grew and I slowly become more comfortable with my gender. I graduated with a first class degree (and went across the stage wearing a skirt!) and true friends.

I wish I’d had more courage to stand up for myself and point out these behaviours at the time. What I can do now though is try and make things better by trying to be a positive role model and challenging gender stereotypes when I encounter them. I’m in a good position to do this since Dr. is blissfully gender neutral and is a helpful tool to challenge preconceptions.

When I walk into a lecture theatre to teach a class for the first time the reaction I get is usually something akin to confusion; students might not know who they were expecting, but it most certainly wasn’t me! I start the lecture by introducing myself and tackling this head on so it’s over and sorted: “Hi, I’m Dr Ridgway and I’m probably not quite what you were expecting but once you’re over that we’re going to have a good semester.”

I am actively involved in school outreach activities. I think it’s important to both boys and girls to see that ‘an engineer’ is not necessarily a man, not a car mechanic and doesn’t have to drive a white van. I hope that by challenging these preconceptions at an early stage it broadens their world view and career aspirations.

What else can I do to help female engineers and academics be taken seriously? It’s simple; I do my job well and take pride in my work. This can encompass small things like replying to emails from students promptly and taking deadlines seriously, through to giving lectures that students want to turn up to (if students are only turning up to get your lecture notes you’re doing it wrong) and being enthusiastic about what I’m teaching.

I’m not afraid of my gender any more; I wear dresses and occasionally even lipstick! By dressing in a way I like, yes I’m feminine, but it’s a side consideration to my brain and what I say and do. That’s the way it should be.

Dr. Leah Ridgway (MEng) (PhD) Electronic Engineering, 27 years-old, British, female engineer and feminist. Leah can be found on twitter @verdantstar.

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