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24 March 2009 @ 10:19 pm
Finding Ada Lovelace in my friends  
So, I signed the pledge. So, I need to write a post about a woman in technology who I admire. A woman who is a role model to me. Shouldn't be too difficult, right? I mean, there's all those historical scientists, good old Marie Curie (I was in Curie House at school, too), or Rosalind Franklin and all the handy assistance she gave Crick and Watson. Or what about Emily Roebling, who holds a place in my heart as one of the first women to hold her own (or rather, her husband's own) in an engineering field, and to whom we owe the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge? (I forgot about that when being forced to cycle up it, I must say.)

But I think, for me, a role model is someone subtly different. Yes, I can look at those first women of science and engineering and feel awe and respect for them - I can be humbled by how easily they actually managed to be accepted into a male-dominated world and how their worth was valued by those who understood it. In fact, I think I just came up with a whole new tangent of thought linking the industrial revolution with women's suffrage not through freedom from housework but through equality in factory work, but let's leave that one for another time. Heroines are all well and good, but they don't sustain me from day to day - the admitted genius of these people does not help me to brush off the elderly and unreconstructed man in the office who drops his arm on your shoulders and calls you Flossie, and does not help me to know how to hold my own in a meeting full of men with 40 years' more engineering experience than me. Those heroines are great as people to admire from afar, but they're not the ones who tell me how to exist in my day-to-day world.

Those people are the ones around me, the ones who allow me to be a woman in technology myself by being one too and never even seeming to question it. They are the friends I had at school who knew that engineering was for them and knew it was probably for me too, even before I did. They of course include Keppet, whose work continues to get ever further beyond my comprehension of physics. But I think the ones who made it easy, who made it natural and unquestioned in myself that I am an engineer, are those I met at university. I was very lucky - incredibly so, in fact - to be in an Oxford college where, of the 6 Engineering undergraduates taken in in 2000, 4 of us were girls. (The overall course ratio was more like 1:3 girls to boys.) And... and I don't think I'm being cocky here, just stating exam fact... on average within our group of 6, the girls did slightly better. (Final distribution of degrees: two Firsts to girls, one 2:1 to a girl, two 2:2s one girl, one boy - and one Third to a boy.) So it was in those 4 years that I first gained (coming from an all-girls school) and then lost any idea that engineering is better suited to men, or that anyone sensible would think so.

And of the three amazing other women who accompanied me through those 4 years - it feels so wrong to call us 'women,' but we're all over 26 now and 2 out of 4 are married, egads - the one who I want to zoom in on, as a coda and as my pledged 'role model' in several ways, is my friend Suzanne. Who I hope is not reading this. Suzanne is, perhaps, the 'girliest' woman in science or technology that I know. She's giggly, fun, and drags me to see the Sex & The City movie when I didn't think I wanted to (and I was right). She likes cocktails, boys, fancy dress parties and having everybody round to her house to watch the finale of The X Factor. But she does all of this while still being unthinkingly pretty awesome at computer programming, and I still remember her just hop-skip-jumping past the rest of us as we tried desperately to understand the rather abstract subject of Control in 3rd year. Since leaving university, she has worked with technology and programming in the defence industry and now these days for the Home Office. She geeks out about the silliest things, stresses for hours about how she needs to find her sunglasses or she'll get wrinkles, plays football with a strange mix of violence and apologising all the time, and seems completely unaware of the number of imaginary gender lines she crosses and smooshes into the dust just by existing.

That's a role model that I need - one that reminds me I have company whilst also pointing out I'm nothing special - and I'm very glad I have it.
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