Friday, February 26, 2016

Sincerely, a feminist

The following is a blog post in response to a report by the BBC about a science fair where a boy was awarded first prize. I would suggest that before reading this you refer to the article to understand what I have to say.

Now, this is probably a controversial opinion, but I feel it has to be said. Below is my understanding of the key details of the situation regarding the EDF Science Competition controversy.
  • EDF Energy science and technology competition was originally for girls only but later opened up to boys too.
  • It had the ambition of encouraging girls in STEM.
  • The competition was gender neutral and the adjudication panel contained a majority of female members.
  • A boy won, and three of four runners-up were female.
My question here is, what is the problem? Boys were eligible to enter the competition, and the best project in the eyes of the adjudication panel won. Yes, the competition had the intention of promoting girls in STEM, but who’s to say it hasn’t done that?  It’s not about the prizes, it’s about the involvement. I’m sure most of the participants of that science fair came away from the experience with pride, enthusiasm and of course, many new ideas.

To those criticizing the idea that a contest to promote females in STEM would have a male winner, I ask: is allowing a girl to win by default really a way to promote girls in STEM? There is no worse feeling on earth than feeling like your success is because of your gender, or feeling like the token female and I have been in that situation more times than I care to count. I would truly hate for a fellow girl in STEM to ever feel the same.

The first two times I entered a science fair (the BT Young Scientist) it was won by first an individual male and then a group of two boys. Did that discourage me? NO. I marched up to their stand, quizzed them on their projects to see what made them better than mine, then went back to the drawing board and made improvements to my own project, until eventually myself and my teammates were good enough to win.

Us girls have more grit and determination than to just give up because we don’t win a competition. We are not dolls that need to be rolled up in cotton wool and placed on a shelf, protected from the outside world. Please give us more credit than that.

If we try to promote girls in STEM by making ‘female only’ competitions or insisting that girls should win science fairs rather than boys, all we teach them is that they aren’t good enough to stand their own ground and fight their own battles. We teach them that they aren’t good enough to compete against the men.

So if you really care about increasing the rate of STEM uptake in females, why not be a bit more tactful about it. Don’t say ‘a girl should have won because she’s a girl.’ Instead, track down the three girls who came runner-up and use them as the role models. Why not celebrate their success? Don’t forget about them – because who knows, maybe next year one of those girls will take first place.

Let’s not forget what feminism is about guys: equality for both genders. We fight against the elevation of one gender over another, but we cannot be seen to want to tip the balance the other way as it undermines our cause.

A feminist, and a girl in STEM.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

How to overcome your education

‘How to overcome education.’ It’s quite sad to have to write that, isn’t it? But unfortunately with the way our system is built today, often young people are faced with that challenge.

We hear stories like it all the time, young people who are essentially forced with giving up their lives during an exam year: no more sports, no music, or something which I find most upsetting - no creativity. Now before I go ahead and say anything, I have so much appreciation for our education system. We are blessed in this country to be provided with free, quality, diverse education when so many all over the world are deprived of it. That being said, for teenagers who want to break from the mold, it can represent an obstacle rather than a tool.

Last month I spoke at TEDxTeen to portray a belief of mine that everyone has the potential inside them to change the world from inside their bedroom, in their pyjamas. It was an incredible experience, but what really stood out to me is that every young person who approached me after my talk asked the same question: “How did you manage to do this and balance school at the same time?”

Upon reflection, this question is quite upsetting. There in front of me I saw dedicated, passionate young people who actually cared about making a difference, who wanted to get involved, and they felt like school was holding them back. Education is a tool that should empower young people, not get in the way of their dreams and ambitions. Before me I saw boundless potential going to waste because young people felt like they couldn’t manage both education and innovation in their schedule.

But why is it so essential that young people innovate? Because, put simply, we have something which older people do not: naivety. We are brave enough to try the most crazy ideas because we haven’t yet learned about all the reasons why it might not work. And sometimes that pays off, because sometimes those ideas work.

So for all those kids who have an idea they really want to pursue, but can’t think of a way to figure out the balance between school and work, I have one piece of advice for you:

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

From personal experience and from speaking to my friends, most students would be finished studying and homework by 9pm at the latest, and goes to bed at approximately 11pm. That gives you two hours with which to get stuff done. Now I don’t mean you should use all that time, or you’d probably go insane (and I wouldn’t blame you). But if you give over 20 minutes of that time, three nights a week, that adds up to an hour per week. Progress will be slow, but it takes hundreds of nights to become an overnight success. And soon you’ll see that begin to pay off. It’s all about baby steps in the right direction. Take inspiration from your everyday life, from friends, family and school. The education system doesn't give us the scope to apply what we learn to our everyday life, but there's nothing to stop us doing that ourselves and finding ways to make life better for everyone.

Take that first bite of the elephant, and wait to see where it takes you. But one final tip: when you overcome your education, don't forget what you learned in school.