Somewhat to my chagrin, I had never heard of Women's History Month before Gillian's email wondering if I'd like to participate.
Saying yes was easy — finding a topic rather less so. Women's History Month is, as far as it goes, entirely self-explanatory; but as a rule of thumb I live under a crippling inability to consider myself as contributing to anything. What can I say, it's a skill. And not even a particularly rare one at that.
Having little more to go on than Gillian's injunction to discuss our work, passions and lives, and determined to ignore that niggling little voice which keeps me silent when I shouldn't be, I decided to talk a little about my dayjob. Those of you who know me online would know me as a writer first and foremost. But writing, while it comes first in my list of Stuff I Love Doing (well, just behind sleeping), comes second in funding my ability to pay the rent. Thus I spend the majority of any given day working as a chemical engineer.
That I simultaneously pursue both science and art surprises a lot of people, but engineering is work and a mindset I love just as much as writing. (Well. Almost. It's hard to resist the lure of a profession where killing people off is not only allowed, but encouraged. And where dinosaurs still exist. But maybe that's just me.) At the time, applying to study engineering at university was a move which surprised every one who knew me. Writing was all I talked about, consuming my extracurricular hours, and when I wasn't writing I was reading. At school I gravitated toward the artsier subjects: high-level english (which I hated: literary analysis and I hadn't made our peace at that stage), ancient history (which I loved), visual arts, a smattering of language here and there (at which I was earnestly terrible).
But my favourite subjects were mathematics and chemistry. They led me to study and work in engineering, which I love for reasons not dissimilar to the reasons I love writing. I could go on at length about the appeal of science and engineering — the way it takes hard physical evidence and observable, reproducible phenomena, and strings theorems and hypotheses between them to create stories of why the leaves are green and the sky is blue. That, just like writing, it's about past experiences, a shared history, imagination, and daring to dream. The fact that the entire discipline is built on a premise of being collaborative and rigorously open, encouraging invention and innovation, like a global remix project centred around numbers and factoids. I like that language is immaterial, that the stars speak to us through chemicals and fractals and ratios.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that I crave answers, yes, but more than anything, I want space and the chance to both be curious and to indulge that curiosity.
It won't come as a surprise to anyone when I say that engineering is a male-dominated career. The female-to-male ratio varies widely across the individual disciplines. When I enrolled, environmental featured about 95% women, whereas mechanical featured less than 1%. Chemical engineering sat somewhere in the middle, with about 10% of the class being women. (In general industry, which features a much slower turnaround time due to employing people for 40-odd years instead of 4, tends toward even smaller ratios.) So there was I, fresh-faced and packing literary analysis skills and a head full of ancient history that would mean squat, rocking up to my first day of university as one of a distinct minority.
And the wonderful thing about that first day, when I was one of only 4 women among a class of 40? It simply never occurred to me that I didn't belong, that I may need to fight to earn and keep my place, that I was in any way less than any of my new classmates. Even more wonderful: that thought never occurred to any of my male classmates either.
They were a new breed of boys, and we were a new breed of girls, raised so thoroughly to the knowledge that gender did not have any place in the discussion of rights, that it didn't even occur to any of us to realise it hadn't always been so.
Some years later my aunt told me of what it had been like for her, to get into university. She'd won a scholarship to study medicine — and prior to starting had to attend an interview where she was asked (read: told) to be sure this was what she really wanted, because in accepting this scholarship she would be taking a place away from a boy. A boy who wouldn't go off and have children and do nothing with all this precious learning. She was talked into downgrading to sonography, a far more reasonable course of study for a woman. Given my only worry on applying for university was getting a high enough mark, I like to think we've come a long way in just twenty odd years.
It's not perfect, of course — on leaving the rarefied world of university and entering the workforce, I've had my share of sexism to deal with. Sometimes I think the worst were the kindly ones. In my first work placement, one near-sighted fellow led me across a pontoon bridge to get to the sand-mining barge, and his tactic was to hover at the far end of each pontoon so he could time his spring-board departure from that pontoon with my attempted landing. He wanted to make me fall into the water. It would have been funny, of course, but it also would have demonstrated to me that I was wasting my time. Pretty young girl like me, I should be at home, married and having babies. Not stomping around mudflats in steel-capped boots.
There were times when being a girl made my job much harder than it needed to be, but I never considered giving up engineering because of my gender. (I did consider giving up engineering, and in fact did give it up for a spell, when it clashed with my writing one too many times.) When I spoke to Gillian about what she wanted out of this series of articles, she spoke of role-models, women who inspired or challenged me. So I sat to pondering that, wondering if it was thanks to a role-model that I stuck it out, or started in the first place.
That's when I realised that, in all honesty, I know very little of the contribution of women to the course of science. Marie Curie springs to mind, and Ada Lovelace, and then I start drawing blanks and needing to dig deeper than the casual trivia of a stray name.
Let me say I'm not particularly proud of that ignorance, but at the same time it is, in a way, something to celebrate in and of itself. Because increasingly we live in a world where women undertake whatever they want to, without stopping to think of it as a luxury, as bold or daring or unconventional, without even pausing to think it wasn't always this easy. Without needing to cling to a role-model.
And I for one think that's inspirational.
(Now if you'll excuse me, there's some biographies of enterprising women I should read up on.)