Guest Post: Jeanne Michalon
As I was approaching the end of high school, I faced an immensity of possibilities regarding university courses. I was lost, I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to apply to a variety of courses ranging from art schools in Paris to engineering schools in Glasgow. As I come from a small city in France, people always asked me: why Scotland? And I always cheekily answered: why not? But the truth is that I had stumbled onto the FemEng in Rwanda blog starring the coolest girls I had ever seen.
For those who don’t know FemEng, we are the society for female engineers at University of Glasgow who promote diversity in STEM, and every year on top of all our activities in Scotland, we organise an international outreach in collaboration with a foreign university. So why is FemEng needed?
I personally always loved STEM subjects and was good at them but I never saw myself taking them further until the day that I read the blog. On the blog I saw that you could study engineering AND be a woman AND be extremely cool; I was convinced. This is one of the reasons why we need female engineering societies, but also female associations within companies; to show girls that female engineers simply exist. Throughout the year FemEng organise outreach work with local schools in Glasgow, where our aim is to introduce the children to engineering in an engaging and fun way while showcasing female engineers as role models. We hope that girls can grow up thinking that they can pursue a career in STEM if they want to, and boys will grow up knowing that engineering does not have to be a masculine environment.
When leaving university, a lot of women leave the engineering and tech industry. In order to encourage our female classmates to keep on engineering we try to create a bridge between the university and the industry, so we organise site visits and discussion panels, and are currently starting a new mentoring scheme that will pair a student and a mentor from the industry. The idea behind this project is to make the industry appear relevant and attractive to the students, to show them that they could evolve and feel complete in this environment, and that it is accessible. You can’t imagine yourself as an engineer if you have never met an engineer!
We organise events with female engineers from the industry, where they tell us about how they became who they are today, and what life lessons they have learnt over the years. Even though our events are open to everybody, they are mostly attended by female students, with the few men disappearing into the majority of women (for once!). The audience can then ask questions, questions that are not usually asked because they are questions that male engineers would probably never have to ask themselves. We talk about impostor syndrome, resilience in the workplace, the wage gap and how to make sure we get the salary that we deserve, maternity leave, how to combine family and career, and so on. If a similar event was organised for an audience that featured the actual percentage of women in the engineering sector, these questions would never be asked. FemEng has created a necessary safe space.
Our weekly meetings and socials are also safe spaces. FemEng has been my sanctuary for the past 2 years, a place where I know I will be supported no matter what. If I am working on a project I will always be encouraged and usually rewarded with a “You go girl!”. It feels amazing because it can be tiring to work in an environment where you constantly have to prove to your male peers that you are worth their academic respect. Moreover, sexual harassment often occurs at work or at university, and we need a place where we know we can be listened to and helped if facing this situation.
Finally, we actively promote diversity. Just the fact that FemEng exists is opening a dialogue on gender parity, with questions such as “Why is there a FemEng?” and “Can boys also join the society?” being asked. We also produce T-shirts with Steminist written on them, which intrigues people that have never heard the term before. We promote and share inspiring content on all social media to reach the biggest audience possible. By being loud and public we raise awareness around us.
We also strive for a better representation of all the minorities in STEM: people of colour, LGBTQ+, engineers with disabilities, etc. because intersectionality is key to better engineering. We make sure to use inclusive vocabulary and most of our events are open to everybody, but in order to enforce the safe space mentioned earlier, some of the events are for womxn (cis and trans women) and non-binary people only. We are aiming to create a society where anybody that is tired of being surrounded by white cisgender straight males will feel welcome.
To put it in a nutshell, FemEng is working towards creating an engineering sector where everybody can reach their full potential and where bright minds won’t feel discouraged by a narrow-minded industry. Engineering needs diversity, engineering needs us. If you would like to help FemEng or any similar Steminist society, they are always looking for volunteers, speakers, mentors, and sponsors, so just get in touch with them, or us!