Earlier this Spring I found myself on the top floor of the Queensland Museum learning how to program a Lego Mindstorms robot during the World Science Festival held in Brisbane. To say I was out of my usual English teaching element would be an understatement.
My teenage daughter and I had arrived to volunteer and provide an opportunity for children to come and try robotics for themselves. As we readied ourselves to supervise one of the display tables, I overheard a father hurriedly speaking to our co-ordinator and pointing towards my girl. He was urgently requesting to have another young instructor take over the explaining to his ten year old son, as he didn’t think she knew what she was doing. My progeny happened to be the only female student volunteer in the team. Both myself and the co-ordinator, to our credit I might add, simply bit our lips and replied with a firm no. We knew what he did not, that my daughter, along with many of her friends, is super talented at robotics, science and maths. She is in the extension class at her school, and works alongside all the boys in her robotics team with great success. The fact she happens to be female is something she has no control of. What she does have is passion and flair for the topics she loves and her ‘village’ are doing everything we can to support this, just as we do for our sons in their own endeavours.
Happily enough on this occasion she was able let her actions speak louder than words and capably guided that over-zealous father’s dear son through an enjoyable robotics programming session. Still it saddened me that in 2017 some individuals still exhibit this type of prejudice. It has not escaped my daughter’s attention that the world is still at times intent on trying to point out women’s perceived flaws. Her group of friends, while sometimes enjoying the more traditional pursuits of make-up and fashion, also confident enough to rock a short hair-cut and decry the societal expectation to take a razor to legs and armpits when they feel the endeavour is repetitive and unnecessary. Many teenagers really are more concerned with investigating important subjects (of which there are many), than trying to spend all their time attracting a member of the opposite, or indeed same, sex. They are liberal, progressive thinkers who argue passionately about equality, both for gender and sexuality.
While I am personally attracted to the abstract sharing of ideas in literature, and more than a little zealous in correcting punctuation and grammar, my daughter feels at home in the world of logic, mathematical equations and computer programming. How we are genetically connected in these vast differences of preference is a mystery, but one I am prepared to celebrate.
When the film ‘Hidden Figures’ was released, I bought tickets for the whole family, not only to learn about the achievements of the female mathematical pioneers of the space program, but to highlight the terrible injustices perpetuated by otherwise intelligent societies against both race and gender. The gasps from my children proved the message was received and led to some interesting discussions on the ride home.
My daughter has many wonderful mentors to help her on her path towards a career in a STEM profession. These range from her school science teacher who entrusted her with an expensive Arduino kit to practice circuitry over the weekend, her computer programmer father, that protective robotics team supervisor, and most certainly Peter Capaldi, otherwise known as the 12th doctor on Doctor Who. (The fact that the next Doctor is female has been met with much excitement at the dinner table)
She has signed up to maths camp at the end of the term and follows the Young Scientists of Australia on social media. The opportunities supporting girls are there and we must support them. It is this generation who is going to demand further reform to workplace flexibility so that women are not going to be held back by choosing to have a family. It is important not only for our daughters, but for our sons as well. I am encouraged by my work at a co-educational school to witness girls and boys working along-side each other, competing and collaborating as equals. It is after all a microcosm of the reality of our wider workforce, and the knowledge that our reliance on technology is only going to grow. I want to see as many girls as boys enjoying the rewards.