When I announced to my parents as a 17 year old that I thought I wanted to be an engineer they were surprised. Not because they doubted my capability but more due to the fact that I had never expressed an interest in the field before. In fact, I was vehemently set against the idea. You see, I come from a family of engineers. My father is a chemical engineer and for as long as I can remember all my brother (who is 4 years my elder) wanted to be when he grew up was an engineer. So yes, my resistance was partially driven by the fact I didn’t want to be seen to be taking the easy path by simply following in the family tradition but there was more to it than just that.
As a child I was not restricted by gender stereotypes in anyway. I was the ultimate tomboy, a trait my family fully embraced. I was more likely to be found playing with an action man than a barbie (although to be honest dolls of any kind weren’t really my thing!), while trips to Santa’s grotto would somehow involve the very loud specifications that I was a 6 year old ‘who loves playing with boy’s toys’ to tip off the unsuspecting elves that the blue parcel might be more appropriate. I envisioned myself becoming many things in my future but never thought of myself as an engineer.
For me it was nothing directly to do with gender per se, I never once thought I couldn’t be an engineer because I was female. Being in the minority has never been something which phased me and I will certainly never let it influence my decisions. The barrier to picturing myself in a hard hat or working on a computer design was not the perceived masculinity of the role or the academic challenges it may pose but more the skill set I thought it entailed, a skill set I believed I was lacking. You see, my brother grew up building things. Lego, Kinex, Lincoln logs - you name it, he had it. He loved everything about designing and creating and could spend hours and hours on end working on his masterpieces. It was often said by those who knew him that he was born to be an engineer.
As a young girl I quickly realised I was nothing like my brother. I never expressed such interests or aptitudes and so never thought engineering would be for me. Not because I wasn’t encouraged or exposed to such activities but quite frankly because I never found them stimulating. If something broke, I wasn’t rushing to try and fix it and I certainly never popped the car bonnet to have a look at the engine. Yet, even though I did none of these things when I was a child as I have progressed through my studies I have realised that I too was born with an engineering mind and maybe as a youngster I simply did not display my aptitude so clearly.
I believe that engineering in its essence centres on ‘logical problem solving’, which does not always manifest itself in hands on activities that are often associated with the career, but rather in more subtle ways. Of course when a child spends their time dismantling things and re-building them it almost waves a red flag for the parents that engineering might be a suitable future career option, but sometimes these skills can be more subtle and particularly in the case of girls, harder to spot.
As a youngster I almost never remember building or fixing something. Instead I loved puzzles, riddles and just about anything that made me think. Even better if the game didn’t have a single right answer, but rather required you to reason and justify your solution. As an 8 year old I could beat anyone young or old in the traffic jam logic game “Rush Hour”, in my early teens I was a whizz at Sodoku and most recently the Rubik’s cube has caught my attention. However on top of these interests I still played sport, read books and generally had many other hobbies which often overshadowed those problem solving skills. As a result I was never characterised as a budding engineer like my brother. A scientist, lawyer and even a journalist were mentioned, but not an engineer.
This I believe is where gender plays a role in the number of girls choosing to study engineering at third level. Not for the traditionally spouted reason of engineering being seen as a male-dominated career, but rather due to the gender disparity in the identification of the skill sets of our young people. There is no single subject on a school report card that will straight away alert a parent or student to an aptitude for engineering (while a talent for maths is important, engineering requires much more than just numeracy skills). If a student gets an A in accounting the business, economics and accounting opportunities will straight away be highlighted, good grades in chemistry and biology might encourage students into medical sciences, a prowess for english could lead to journalism and so such links can continue for many university degree’s.
Engineering is not so simple. It is often not what is done in the classroom that is the best indication of engineering talent, it is the way a student thinks and approaches problems that is key. The ability to identify these skills in a student seems to correlate with gender far too often, with girls more than capable of becoming fantastic engineers slipping through the net almost unnoticed because they demonstrate these strengths in a more understated way than their male counterparts. Yet if someone might have said to them “you think like an engineer” everything could have been different. Because after all, no one said that to me – and I very nearly missed my calling.
Aisling won the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in 2006 with her project entitled 'The development and evaluation of a biological food spoilage indicator.' She later placed 3rd in the EU Contest for Young Scientists with this project while representing Ireland in the competition. In 2014 she graduated from University College Dublin with a first class honours bachelors degree in Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering. She is currently studying for a masters in Biochemical Engineering in University College London. Aisling has long championed the involvement of Women in STEM, having written a guest column for Ireland's leading Tech and Innovation site, Silicon Republic on her thoughts on the matter.