Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer

 People often say to me, “You must have had great self-esteem when you were a kid to become an engineer, such a male-dominated profession.”

But no, that’s not true at all.

It’s not like I thought I was a bad person, it’s just that I never had much “self” anything. I was not a self-aware kid. Social and emotional situations were not my thing. There were lots of things going around me that I completely missed. I never got involved in what the kids today call “drama”, not out of any sort of good instinct or intent, but I just didn’t notice. I read a lot, had a very few close friends, and did what I was told.

Even though I got good grades I never really thought of myself as smart. I did homework and studied because that’s what I was supposed to do. If there were messages that “girls can’t do math” or “girls shouldn’t show they are smart” I simply missed them.

It’s not like I heard those cultural norms and thought, “But I’m special!” or  “I’ll change the dominant paradigm!” The good thing, I guess, is that it worked for me like blinders help a horse by lessening distractions.

When I hear people talk about increasing the opportunities for girls in STEM classes and careers, of course I’m interested. But some of the plans I hear just wouldn’t have been relevant to me. Like bringing in adult role models to give girls examples of successful women in science careers. I even remember a few of them – very nice women who were volunteering their time to come talk to girls like me. But even if they were young, they still looked like a different species to me. Hey, I thought the girls sitting next to me were a different species. I didn’t “identify” with anyone.

The teachers and family members who changed my life were both men and women. They impacted my life by talking to ME about ME – and offering me opportunities to experience new and different things.

Egocentric? I suppose. But aren’t most kids? When we take the time to talk directly to kids about what they are doing and who they are, I think the chances of them actually taking it in are greatly enhanced. When we offer them experiences where they can learn and grow on their own terms, it empowers them. To me, the stories of others’ accomplishments pale in comparison.

I recall one high school math teacher who said to me, “We aren’t really challenging you, are we?” and talked my parents into signing me up for an NSF summer program for gifted math students. I wasn’t the top student, but he said he saw something special and different in the way I solved problems. He may not have realized that him talking to me like that was stunning to me.

Kids develop the ability to do things by doing things. That may sound simplistic, but it’s true. Then when they do them successfully and someone notices, they start to believe they can do anything.

2 Replies to “Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer”

  1. Thanks for this, Sylvia.

    I agree that we adults often inflate our own importance as role models and mentors. The sort of nudge your math teacher gave you in the direction where he sensed you might get to do things that develop an interesting part of yourself is more powerful than either of those.

  2. I don’t diminish the value that adults can have as role models and mentors – however, I think it needs to relate more directly to the individual child through an ongoing relationship. I often think that teachers feel as if they aren’t being heard by students, but that it may be that tenth or thousandth time you encourage a kid that is the magic time when they are open to hear it. You never know, so you have to just keep trying!

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