Lakshitha Rajendran, a junior studying chemical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, took the inaugural Buildium Women in Technology Scholarship prize with this winning essay
“Charles Babbage!” I exclaimed. Curious expressions and puzzled faces stared back at me.
Ten minutes ago, I had just sat down at my first meeting of the Society of Women Engineers, excited to be surrounded by ambitious and driven women like myself. “Hello everyone!” said the President, “Welcome to the first Society of Women Engineers meeting of the semester. It is wonderful to meet fellow women who are pursuing their dreams, even in fields where we are a minority. To start off, I would like each new member to briefly tell us what inspired them to pursue technology.”
I listened as one of the girls described being inspired by her love of Legos and another described being influenced by an encouraging math teacher. When it was my turn, I stood up and said, “Charles Babbage.”
Yes, you heard me right – Charles Babbage, a mathematician, an engineer, an inventor and a man inspired my love for technology. At this moment, you are probably wondering why I am so enthusiastically about to describe how a male inventor inspired me to go into technology. It is ironic and seems to almost defeat the purpose seeing that I am writing for a scholarship aimed at women in technology. But let me explain.
Growing up, I had an obsession with computers and their invention. At the age of nine, I learned about Charles Babbage, considered a “father of the computer” and I was fascinated. Here was a person who so many years ago laid a foundation for one of the most extraordinary inventions that has now become an essential part of our lives. The fact that an ordinary person created something so amazing excites me, even to this day. It inspired me and made me dream of one day creating something so revolutionary, and thus started my appreciation of science and technology.
As I progressed through high school, I began to discover my love for all things chemistry and math. I realized I had an aptitude for problem solving and design. I loved the thrill of writing a software code, I loved carrying out experiments in lab and I loved being able to solve a difficult math problem. When I discovered chemical engineering and all the possibilities that it offered, I knew immediately that it was the perfect career for me.
Now you may ask why at this point, I didn’t stop and like so many women dismiss a future in science as inappropriate for a female. Why did I not stop and say to myself, “The only reason Charles Babbage achieved so much was because he was a man.” What inspired me to keep going?
Here’s my secret – nothing. Nothing inspired me to keep going. The truth is, I didn’t know that engineering was a man’s profession. Call me naive, maybe even sheltered but at no point in my life had someone told me that women were not supposed to be scientists. No one told me that as a woman I couldn’t enjoy problem solving, coding or design. I just didn’t know. And so, I never stopped to doubt my talents. The decision to follow my dream was an easy one.
And there we have it – a simple truth. If girls were told they were good enough growing up, if they weren’t fed gender stereotypes, if they weren’t told they should be pretty, play with dolls and leave the “tough jobs” to men, I suspect we would have a lot more females in technology. If like me, they had grown up completely unaware of the misguided notions that “computers are for boys” then like me, being a woman would have not been relevant to their career choice.
I recently read about a study that showed that if told that men score better in math tests than women, women tend to score worse. When they were not told anything, both genders scored equal on average. It made me wonder whether I would have still chosen to become an engineer had I grown up hearing that women cannot do math. It also made me grateful, because I realized that my childhood ignorance possibly led to one of the best decisions of my life. Even as I sit in classes with an overwhelming majority of men, I am thankful that my lack of knowledge allowed me to look at a male inventor and be inspired to become a chemical engineer.
Now in my third year, at the University of Cincinnati, I am well aware of the painful lack of women in STEM fields, but it has not discouraged me because I also see first-hand evidence every day that being a woman has nothing to do with success. I know that while the road so far has been difficult and I have had to work harder than I ever have before, so does every other male engineering student!
Although Charles Babbage was my first exposure to engineering, many women engineers have inspired me along the way too. My female idols have ranged from Ada Lovelace often described as the world’s first computer programmer to Debbie Sterling, the founder of GoldieBlox, a toy company aimed at inspiring the next generation of female engineers. But they inspired me because of their creative ideas, their willingness to take risks and their contributions to technology, not because they did it all “despite being a woman.”
So yes, Charles Babbage and his work on the Analytical Engine inspired and still continues to inspire my passion and dream to become a chemical engineer. On a completely irrelevant side note – he was a man.
Interested in applying for the Spring 2015 Buildium Women in Technology Scholarship? Please read the complete instructions and eligibility requirements first.