February 23, 2017
I read an article a few weeks ago in the Atlantic that was really troubling. It described a study where a University of Illinois psychologist described a “really, really smart person” at work to groups of children. He then showed two photos of men and two photos of women to the children and asked who they thought the “really, really smart person” was out of the people in the photos. Among five-year-olds, boys thought the story was about a man, while girls thought the story was about a woman. In groups of six- and seven-year-olds, boys still thought the story was about a man; however, girls had already begun imaging the story was about a man as well. Girls in that age group and older were also less likely to want to play games for “smart people”. There’s no two ways about it, and that’s a huge bummer.
Maybe the study took me by surprise because, in my opinion, we live in a time of STEM Encouragement Overload. There are lots and lots (and lots, but I kind of like that one) of articles about how to get your kids–particularly daughters–to become the next great engineers, scientists, or mathematicians.
My path to becoming an engineer certainly wasn’t a straight line. In retrospect, I can think of a handful of things that were good clues to younger me becoming an engineer. I’ve always been pretty creative, asked a lot of questions, and loved taking stuff apart. When my brother was done building his K’NEX kits, I would see how many of the pieces I could take away before the whole thing would fall down, and he’d notice. I enjoyed math and science (and English and French and Art and Music), but in general, I’ve grown to have the most satisfaction from problems that are big challenges at first—to the point that I don’t know if I’ll be able to figure them out. When I struggle and have to work really hard but eventually figure things out, I feel like the queen of the world! Something else I’ve learned about myself is how important it is for me to feel like the work I do tries to help to advance the human condition in some way. Who wouldn’t want to feel like they’ve left the world a better place than it was when they got here? Even though engineering school was really hard sometimes, and some days at work, I get really frustrated when I can’t figure stuff out, the reason I ultimately became (and stayed) an engineer is because it lets me use my creativity, curiosity, determination, and desire to help people all at once.
Though that’s my take on why I became an engineer, I was also interested in the perspective of a parent who actually raised one. So, on this Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, I present to you an interview with my favorite lady and yours – my mom, Beth Riley! I asked her questions in three categories: parenting, me when I was younger, and me in college and beyond. Here they are:
Q1: Did you feel social (or personal or family) pressure to raise kids who were interested in STEM?
A1: No, I hoped to encourage you and provide you with what you wanted to know about, not ever to steer you. Your dad is a math teacher, so I knew you would be exposed to math things he liked, but there was never a pointed effort to do that.
Q2: Did you try to structure my time and guide me to be interested in science-y things?
A2: No, not at all. I would read to you a lot, but at a certain point you would have enough and want to go off and play pretend by yourself.
Q3: Did you hope I would go into a STEM field? Was that even a thing people cared about?
A3: Not really, I just wanted you to do what made you happy.
Younger Me Q’s
Q4: What did I like to play or play with when I was younger? Mostly science toys?
A4: When you were really little you liked dolls and kittens. As you got older and had better motor skills, you liked painting, crafting, making baking soda and vinegar volcanos, and playing with Brio trains, fake food, Playdough, clay, and oobleck. When you were a little older, you really liked your Barbies and some television shows, especially Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Beakman’s World (note: I think she’s being generous here. I watched a lot, and I mean a lot of VH1). Around 10, you liked clothes and had started being really into architecture, too, especially Frank Lloyd Wright. By the time you were a teenager, you still liked arts and crafts and clothes shopping, and you also liked doing stuff on the computer and talking to friends.
Q5: Was there a profession you thought I might be?
A5: An architect because you loved Frank Lloyd Wright so much. You made houses out of your old shoeboxes, and I just wouldn’t have been surprised if you had done that.
Q6: Do you remember ever wondering if I would want to be an engineer?
Q6: Not really. Once you were at IMSA (my public, residential high school), I remember you saying that it was kind of expected that most students there would go on to study medicine or engineering.
College and Beyond Q’s
Q7: Why do you think I decided to study engineering in college?
A7: Being at IMSA. Note: That’s partially true, but if I’m being real with the realest part of myself, I decided I wanted to study engineering at UIUC because most of my friends were too. So you could say I was being a teenager.
Q8: Did you ever worry about me being a woman in a male-dominated field?
A8: We talked about things like that enough that, as long as you were comfortable in that environment, I felt comfortable for you. You would talk about sexism and biases that you felt existed in undergrad, and I would say if there’s anything I could do, I would. I just had confidence in you and knew you would be able to do what you set your mind to.
Q9: I wanted to switch majors out of engineering at least a few times. What did you think when I wanted to do that?
A9: I always said, “Go for it, if you want!” I wanted you to enjoy college, and that engineering program was miserable sometimes. I think the last time it came up, you just said how everyone else kind of hated engineering school, too, but everyone just gets through it. You said, “I’m gonna get this degree, damn it.”
Q10: After undergrad, I initially went into management consulting. Did you expect me to go back into a more technical field?
A10: I knew you didn’t like that job, and you would say things like, “Why did they hire me? I studied engineering.” When you interviewed at SEDAC (the job that brought me back to engineering and building sciences), I remember you being so excited because your then-future boss Don had said something like, “At the end of the day I just want to feel good about what I’ve done today,” and that’s what you said you wanted too.
So I know this might be an unpopular opinion, but I disagree with tips like “get your daughter out of the pink aisle” to help introduce her to engineering. In my opinion—and I guess my mom’s too—there isn’t “A Right Way” to introduce a girl to engineering. I feel really fortunate to have parents who wanted me to pursue my interests, ask a lot of questions, value education, stumble around and fail a couple times, and then just keep on pursuing my interests.