As part of my Physics degree, I completed eight weeks’ vacation training at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) at Culham in Oxfordshire at the end of my second year. We were looking at nuclear fusion.
The experience didn’t feel like it was going too well – it was allowing me to see that scientific research wasn’t a good career fit for me – I needed something more active with people and change.
There was a moment though, which sticks in my mind. It makes my family laugh as everything about it seems so unlike me. I am never practical at home; they find my story really hard to imagine!
I was in a lab, concentrating hard, doing something using a hand drill. There were very few women working at Culham at that time (this was in the early 80s!). There was one other woman though, the cleaner, who was as quiet as a mouse working around all of us, doing an exceptionally good job.
One day it was just her and me in the lab. She sidled up, maybe seeing me as a complete novelty, and asked in an excited tone, “What’s it like, doing a man’s job?” Maybe she had never had the opportunity to ask a question like this before.
So what happened?
I’m still amazed to tell you, that my immediate, instinctive response, was to engage with her with some warmth in my eye, physically show her how to use the tool and say: “Look, it’s just like a food mixer!”
(Not that I do much cooking at home either! My children are surprised I know what one is!)
So what was going on? On reflection, a number of possible explanations come to mind:
- I have huge, innate strengths in demonstrating and explaining, and these kicked in straight away. My mind leapt to showing her it was exactly the same as something she probably did in her kitchen at home already.
- I heard her curiosity; coupled with an almost raging hunger for learning. Without thinking, I responded with empathy. I just wanted to communicate this was possible for her too.
- Judgement was a long way away; either her’s for me, or mine for her. It felt like we met as equals, both willing to learn and grow.
In the UK we are keen to encourage more girls and people from ethnic minorities into STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.
It’s a big job, and I know many women from my work with Women in Transport and Women in Rail who love going into schools to tell them about their careers. Maybe they also have a story like mine, where something happened to show them it was possible.
And for me?
Nowadays, I’ve found a way to use my skills, strengths and talents to inspire women working in the transport sector to stretch beyond their technical expertise, and aim higher with their leadership impact too.
I’m also delighted to see how UKAEA at Culham is promoting a career with them today:
And now I’m curious about you.
What is your story?
When you look in the mirror, how do you help others see bigger, better, and more inspiring opportunities for themselves too?
Gill How loves to work with managers, executives and professionals to help them to evolve, stretch and grow their leadership capability. She is a Master Executive Coach and innovative Leadership Developer who works both internationally and in the UK. If she can help you in developing the potential of women in your organisation, get in touch!
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