A young girl's journey into science

Dear young friend,  

Today is the day of women in science.  I thought I should write this note to all the young girls – aspiring to do great things, but numbed by self-doubts, that well-meaning people have put in you.  

I am not going to tell you about all those women who have blazed their way, and who have defined fields from sports to arts to medicine to farming.  I am simply going to ask you to look at yourself and keep sight of who you are.  This is a simple narrative about an ordinary girl who dared to look beyond what her world wanted to allow her to.  For you to know that you are not unique in the expectations you are burdened with and that you can soar with them.  And why these expectations must be met head on for girls and women to succeed in science.

I was raised in a simple, conventional, affectionate, not-so-wealthy family.  I had no physical deprivations, I was sent to school, I was never openly discriminated against.  It was, however, ever present in those little things – what you could choose to study, what you can play, what is demanded of you, who you could be with and what you can dream.  You had to be competent, but not seek a career; you had to learn the arts but not desire to perform; you had to be industrious but not the master of your own time.  I had always wondered why no one asked me my thoughts – then I realized I was not expected to think.  It was unthinkable to have strong passions, let alone express them.  It is done ever so subtly, and continuously, that girls start “believing” that their capabilities are different.  It is for our own good, we are persuaded.

It took me years to even realize what was going on; and only in retrospect.  Leaving a cosy college in my home town to go to a distant university and daring to work in areas and in ways equal to men, upset the blueprint that girls in my family had.  Among other things, I became a science and mathematics teacher, working with digital technologies, dreaming up pathways for learning for many young minds – girls and boys.  My work led me to communities and contexts far removed from the protected settings of my upbringing and fraught with uncertainty and I could see the distress that it caused my family. How would I make a living they worried.  But, as you walk, the way does appear and wonderful experiences flowed into my life and I am richer for these.  A far cry from the girl who could not touch the computer in school because the boys operated it;  a young girl who could not ask for what is her due.  Was I afraid along the way?  Of course, I was.  Was it uncomfortable to challenge the years of conditioning?  More than you can imagine.  Don’t let that stop you.   

I am seeking to alert you to all this messaging - implicit and explicit - about what women can and cannot do and to not allow them to come in the way of your imagination.  In the university that I went to, the smithy assistant in the workshop told me very gently “This is not possible for you to do – let me finish it”.  It is as simple and well-meaning as that.  I was too proud and too stubborn to allow him; I am stronger for that.  And this is precisely what I would urge you to do.  

I was an ordinary young girl, without any special endowments.  However, I did dare to dream and see a different world.  Making your way for a new world means confronting; do so without animosity.  When you have to leave some worlds behind – do so without guilt, without censure.  Accept people but refuse to be bound by their limitations.  Hold your head high and let your work speak for itself.  Be kind, be gentle, but do not accept nonsense. 

You were born, and you remain, no less than anyone.  This belief is the first step in the making of a gender-equal world.