Teach girls to love what they do, and you’ll inspire them for life.

Originally published on Medium.

If you know a girl who loves experimenting, problem-solving, programming, building, disassembling, creating and understanding the world around her, please remind her every day to keep doing those things. Confidence is a powerful thing, especially for girls at an impressionable age. Tell her what she is doing is cool and valuable, she is likely to believe you. More importantly, tell her you’re proud she is doing something she likes to do.

I was raised in a family that encouraged me to try everything that I fancied, whether that was playing a sport, learning an instrument or a language, spilling flour and burning cookies, reading books way over my head or creating things with my hands. I was frequently reminded that I could do whatever I set my mind to. More than anything, I think this provided important validation that my efforts and ideas were worth something.

It seems these days that it is common understanding that there is a lack of women in technical disciplines. Thinking back, I know I was aware of the situation when I chose to study engineering at university; I guess I ignored it and carried on with my decision, because really, what impact should it have? After spending a year in class, my feelings are mixed. Part of me wants to tell myself it’s not a problem and that women are at no disadvantage in STEM fields; the other half of me sees how easily girls can become discouraged and I want to do everything I can to make a difference that might help them understand that they can in fact do it.

I’ve seen a lot of commercials online recently that get a lot of buzz because they advertise toys for girls that encourage them to build things and break the stereotypes that exist in our society. I’m sure these ads get plenty of people thinking that pink building blocks and science kits will excite young girls, but for me, there is something missing from the core of this. I recently came across a quote from Maya Angelou that inspires a lot of what I now do, and what I hope I can show others to do as well.

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

I was always allowed to do what I loved to do, and in this way, I found things I was truly passionate about. Passion can be an enormous driving force and provides a reason to continue even when others doubt your abilities or your ideas. For this reason, I also associate a certain amount of confidence with passion. It takes a confident person to assert that they are passionate about wiring circuits when everyone around them raises an eyebrow. Enter compassion, as well as empathy – if I can realize that you may frown at my circuits not because they are weird or bad, but something you might not understand, then I might be less discouraged when you appear uninterested. Humour wins everyone over, but also takes a fair amount of confidence; I think humour’s value lies in the fact that it can help us relate and bridge a knowledge gap. Style can be interpreted in several ways, but I look at it in two. We each have our own styles – writing, fashion, music – and we can have our own style of expressing our passions too. And implicit in my definition of style is to be elegant and pleasant in delivery, because these qualities go a long way.

So what’s the secret? I definitely don’t have an answer that will get all girls to love math or programming; but I do know of a few things that have allowed me to delve into a field some girls may avoid entering altogether.

  1. Allow us to be creative. It seems there has been a shift away from this in favour of getting girls into more technical tasks. The creative outlets in my life have been some of the most rewarding and taught me an important lesson: that it is okay to fail, and that you can always play a piece again or make another sketch if you didn’t like your first attempt. In engineering, this is iteration and it is incredibly important. My desire to find a creative outlet in a technical environment led me to learn front-end web development and now I am presented with a world of opportunities because of it.
  2. Teach us the importance of an opinion. Only recently have I really understood that my opinion holds as much value as any other person sitting at a table around me. It has helped me defend my ideas with more fervour, and helped my efforts be recognized, and I think this is important for everyone to learn, and also to begin to appreciate others’ opinions. An opinion helps me explain and justify why I enjoy doing the things I do.
  3. Show us that people are supportive. While you may not agree with the mess my volcano made, please value my curiosity and my impulsive action to carry out an experiment more highly than you value a spotless kitchen. Remind me to continue trying different things, and remind me when I fall that I will get back up soon. Encourage me to find opportunities and take them whenever possible, and not to be afraid.

Engineering teaches all of these things, and this is why I think it is so valuable. I think the majority of people overlook the creative side of engineering, but if it weren’t so, how could we ever have new products, software and infrastructure being released all the time? Quantitative in many aspects, engineering also allows us to form an opinion, back it up with numbers based in solid foundations in math and science, and justify why we have formed it. Engineering also breeds a community of diligent critical thinkers you can always turn to for help.

The reason I think the world needs more female engineers is to bring to the creative, opinionated and thinking community, the 4 characteristics that Maya Angelou deems necessary to thrive. Women and girls can thrive in engineering, just remind them of it every day.