Let’s banish the myth that there aren't many female role models in STEM

Let’s banish the myth that there aren’t many female role models in STEM

In my first year of engineering work experience, I noticed no women older than 30 in my workplace. I wondered if they left to have kids and didn’t come back. Being 18, motherhood wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but it did plant a seed: could I do this job and have a family?

All my brief exposure to engineering thus far had been with men. Scrolling through my mental Rolodex revealed no female engineers with kids.

When time came for selecting a specialty in second year, the seed had taken root. I was having serious misgivings. I knew I wanted a family one day. I didn’t want to commit to a career where it would be at best challenging, at worst impossible, to have one.

Without a clear alternative, I stuck with engineering for another year. By a twist of good luck, I chose chemical as my specialty. My classes from then on were 50% women and we had plenty of female lecturers.

The family issue went to the back of my mind, but still it lurked: I had peers, but so far no role models. Where were the women I aspired to follow? These technical ladies who loved physics and maths, wore Hard Yakka and procreated? Would I ever meet one?

(Spoiler alert: Of course I would.)

At the inaugural ‘Skirts in Engineering’ (now ‘UQ Skirts’) dinner, I found what I was looking for: Else Shepherd AM, the keynote speaker. She was one of only two female engineers working in Queensland in 1965. Else went on to win accolades and break glass ceilings everywhere she went. She is extraordinary… and she has kids! I had my first role model.

My mantra became ‘If Else can do it, I can too.’

Then I moved 4,000km to the ‘wild west’ (Kalgoorlie) to work in the mines.

There were no Elses.

On a site of 300 people, 10 were women and most of those were not in technical roles. Definitely no female engineers with kids. In fact, there were no female engineers over 30 on site.

After observing this in my keynote at the AusIMM New Leaders conference, I received a public grilling. Two women in the audience – both engineers in QLD – worked and had kids and were not happy at my casting aspersions on their careers. Of course women could work in STEM careers and have kids, they said, citing themselves as proof.

They were only two out of several hundred attendees – a small showing. Yet they represented hope in human form for an impressionable young woman (me).

Added to Else, I now had three heroes to follow.

My list of heroes has been growing ever since that conference. The question of women having STEM careers and kids stopped being ‘can I do it?’ long ago. It’s now simply a question of how I want to manage it.

I took part in a discussion this week on why it’s hard to attract women to STEM careers and keep them there. Again and again, the women commenting cited a lack of role models. They especially noted a lack of women engineers with kids to look to.

Gobsmacked, I wondered: how can this possibly be?

I know well over 50 women in STEM careers well enough to call them for a chat. At least half of them have kids. The other half may well have them too, I’ve never asked.

From my perspective, women engineers with kids are everywhere. I see them daily at work and on my news feeds. They’re doing amazing things in all kinds of industries while being active mums.

It’s a tragedy that this myth of a lack of role models continues.

The role models are there. We just don’t see them.

Perhaps these women are so flat out they don’t have time to apply for awards, or deliver keynotes, or even get to a mid-week networking function. (I’ve been back at full-time work for the first time since having kids and ‘frantic’ is the first word that pops to mind.)

Perhaps we don’t see them because they’re working from home, or they’re always in meetings, or they’re focused on doing the best damn job they can.

Perhaps it’s self-fulfilling prophecy. You see what you’re looking for, or don’t see what you’re not looking for in this case.

So today, on International Women in Engineering Day, let’s banish the myth of no role models. Let’s showcase them in a list: women who’ve worked in technical or operational STEM roles AND have kids. I started a list on LinkedIn that has been added to and there is no shortage of names.

Let’s celebrate these women a la #CelebratingWomen. Let’s follow them online so we see the fabulous things they’re doing in our news feeds. Let’s make them visible to everyone – male, female, young, old – so we never have to say ‘there are no role models’ again.

And next time you hear someone lament the absences of female role models that have STEM careers AND kids, point them to this list. They’re there. You just have to look.

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