Yesterday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day. While I often think about my role as a female in a male dominated career and hobby, I took more time to intentionally examine what that means and how that impacts this community today. It is important to recognize that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and that only 28% of STEM careers are held by women (1,2). Women are also underrepresented in STEM hobbies, such as reef keeping, with only 26% of STEM hobbyists being female (3). While this correlation may be spurious, it is something worth considering. I want start by emphatically saying, representation matters, but that is not the whole story.
If you do not know, I went to an engineering school for undergrad. The ratio of men to women was 7:1. Needless to say, there were a lot of males in my classes. I initially thought this experience would be important to discuss on International Women’s Day. I could write about how I was brave, or how it was hard, or how I overcame obstacles. As I reflected on that experience, I recognized that I was completely in my comfort zone at Georgia Tech. Not because I was more brave, strong or less sensitive than other people. In fact, I am a really sensitive person – probably more so than most people. I realize I was comfortable in male dominated classrooms because I had confidence in myself due to the strong female AND male role models I had throughout my life. I do not want to give the impression that I did not face adversity, because I did, but I am writing this piece to show gratitude to the amazing people that shaped me into a person I am proud to be. I also want to highlight that this is not a one sided issue. Everyone has a part to play. Young boys should not be left out of the conversation either. Gal Gadot said playing Wonder Woman “gives them a role model for boys to admire as well and to understand that women can be strong and great.” When we can make intentional improvements for one group, they should not diminish opportunities for others. It’s been said a million ways by numerous people: building someone up does not mean you have to tear someone else down. It may be cliché, but on International Women’s day, I want to give thanks to my mom and dad for making sure I knew I could both be strong and great.
My mom is STRONG. She is also beautiful, elegant, brilliant, has the biggest, kindest heart and can be scary when she wants to be. If her gorgeous looks and big personality don’t capture your attention, her supermodel stature of 5’10” will. She told me a while back that she wished she was as compassionate as I am, and that felt odd to me. I have reflected over that statement many times over the months. The statement alone shows how much my mom values compassion. She showed me that being kind was a strength, but kindness and being a push-over were not the same. She is not kind so that people will believe her to be kind; her kindness is authentic. It comes when she means it and she does not spare it for those who don’t deserve it. I also know my mom would be the first person to give her last dollar to someone in greater need. I have seen her help women in abusive relationships get out, find a home, and fill it with furniture and food. She will speak out when someone is being treated unfairly and no one dares cross her. I think her compassion is the source of her strength.
By high school I was completely comfortable owning my mistakes and taking responsibility when I did something wrong. When I made mistakes, my mom was always the first person I went to. I knew there would be no judgement. She never made me feel ashamed of anything I did. To our amusement, a great aunt once chastised my mom for making my sister and I believe we were capable of more than we were. Even that was a lesson in having pride and self-assurance. My mom didn’t skip a beat at that criticism. What an amazing thing to teach a young woman. So momma, I want you to know that you ARE the reason I have compassion. You taught me that I must first be compassionate to myself, as you always are to yourself. Being a push-over and being compassionate are not the same – and no one would dare call you a push over. Every ounce of compassion in me was poured in by you. My confidence, my tenacity, my boldness, my kindness, my empathy, and even my sensitive nature are all products of that compassion and I am proud of all that I am because of the example you were and are to me.
If you are thinking my mom is perfect, you may be right. This may be the reason my parents have been married for 37 years. They have definitely had their ups and downs, but seeing them repair after hurts gave me confidence to keep moving forward, despite what others may think of me. My dad compliments my mom so well. He is more reserved, but can tell the best stories. Everyone who knows my dad says he is hilarious – particularly when it is unexpected. Most of my one liners are hand-me downs from him. While my mom taught me to be bold, my dad taught me my limits. For example, I loved baseball when I was growing up, but I was bad. I mean, I was REALLY bad. I managed to hit MYSELF (in the face) more than once with my own bat during practices. I still have no hand eye coordination – and my kid points it out to me regularly. I will forever be grateful to my dad for sitting me down, telling me he was proud, but it was time to stop. This is counter-intuitive to everything our society teaches about always getting back up. Anyone who has ever taken a boxing class knows that offense is important, but so is defense. My dad taught me that strength requires some bobbing and weaving. He said it was time to stop playing baseball, but that he had another idea. They were hiring people to score baseball games. He thought I would be really good at that and I’d still get to participate at the fields. He was right and I loved that job. Looking back, I suspect very few females worked with me, but it never phased me or my dad that I may have been the only girl there. In fact, I often joke that my dad never realized I was a girl. I was always tinkering on something in the shop with him. I helped with plumbing, hang dry wall, rebuild engines, yard work: anything he did, I was there for it.
I suspect I inherited my love of science from my dad. My dad is a self proclaimed fountain of useless knowledge. I have never brought up a topic that he did not have some concept of. Yet, he would never answer a single question I had growing up. Instead, he always made me look it up. This was back in encyclopedia days ya’ll – there was no google, no YouTube, no Wikipedia. So even though he would know the answer, my dad would help me search for it in books. He realized that I would remember it better if I found the answers myself. (So everyone who calls me pedantic for my obsessive googling – blame him.) I would read his electrician textbooks to him. He shot model rockets with me, took me to NASA camps and marine research camps, and encouraged me to choose an engineering school. One day I asked him how dryers worked, he said, “Let’s find out.” You must know that my dad occasionally repaired dryers and washing machines for people in the neighborhood. Don’t tell my mom, but he drug our perfectly good dryer outside and we proceeded to take the thing apart. He spent that afternoon ensuring I understood how the machine operated. We had three screws left over once we put it back together. He shrugged and said, “That always happens.”
There are many other pivotal men and women I have had in my life. My grandmother was a rock for me and was the master of her own life. Ms. Karen and Ms. Nancy recognized my intelligence in pre-school, despite my lack of social skills, and honed what I was good at. Supportive teachers such as Mr. Simonson, Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Nelson, Mrs. Chambers, Mrs. Pollock, Mr. Ward, Mrs. Halada, and Mr. Zimmerman pushed me to think, supported me when I struggled, and were proud of me when I succeeded. When I faced road blocks or wanted to do things that were not normal, such as doubling up on math classes, I had supporters who fought for me to have the options I wanted. Their belief in me solidified my own belief in myself.
I try to practice gratitude regularly. While I work hard, I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have the relationships and opportunities I have had. Not everyone is given the same opportunities I was and some people start with more than I did. Independent of where we started and where we have come, I believe we all have a responsibility to contribute to our communities. I work hard knowing that representation does matter. It matters that my son is self-confident and believes women are strong and capable. I hope the legacy I leave in all the communities I work with is one of compassion, encouragement, and support. I encourage everyone who enjoys science to pursue their passion without shame or judgment. I make an extra effort to ensure that women and other minorities feel valued and know someone is rooting for their success. I know how much a support team matters.
The reef hobby community is special in this way. We have a huge support team. We may not all agree, and not everyone gets along, but by and large, there is a culture of giving. We want to see each other succeed and we celebrate those successes with one another. In honor of International Women’s Day, I ask that everyone takes a moment and considers how they can better support the people in your community. How can you lend compassion and give support? Maybe you can volunteer at a school, YMCA, or library. Maybe you can e-mail a high school science teacher and offer to talk about pH interactions using your tank as an example. Perhaps you have more time and can set up and help maintain a tank in a classroom, nursing home, or other public space. Maybe your LFS knows of someone new to the hobby that you can help or mentor. Consider how you can be intentional with your interactions to build curiosity without fear of being wrong. Then, set yourself a deadline to make your plan happen and add it to your calendar. Set yourself reminders. As Mark Twain said, great people are those who make others feel as if, they too, can be great.
- Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. ERIC. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED509653
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.
- Corin, E. N., Jones, M. G., Andre, T., & Childers, G. M. (2018). Characteristics of lifelong science learners: an investigation of STEM hobbyists. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 8(1), 53-75. https://doi.org/10.1080/21548455.2017.1387313