There’s power in thy words

There’s power in thy words

A few months ago, I sat down via Skype with Melanie Baker, a friend of MaRS and currently the community manager, developer relations, at Research in Motion. Melanie’s a no-nonsense kind of woman, which is precisely why we get along. We chatted about a variety of topics, including being part of a startup that was purchased by Google, women working in the fields of technology, women leaders and the power of networks and communities. One thing that she said to me during our conversation really stuck out: “If more women wanted to be in tech, more women would be in tech.”

I understand where Melanie’s coming from, because in her world and in her experience, you just “do the job,” and if you’re talented and capable, you make your own opportunities. I have to ask though, is it that simple for other women? Sadly, I don’t think so.

While attending a pub night back in March 2012 with the fabulous Waterloo Women in Technology group , Caity Dyck, manager of the University of Waterloo’s summer camp Engineering Science Quest, spoke to the gathering about the decline of girls and women in engineering. Case in point: in 2011, only 16% of students enrolled in engineering at University of Waterloo were women.

She spoke about how from kindergarten to Grade 2, girls’ interest in engineering is pretty much on par with boys, but by the third grade, girls already feel like they’re not as good as boys at science and math. Subsequently, girls’ further interest in engineering plummets. Whether it’s due to peer pressure or the undue influence of the gender-driven marketing of toys, it’s a disconcerting trend that perpetuates barriers against women entering engineering, and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries.

Here’s the thing: when girls are told that engineering helps people, families and communities with systemic issues, such as access to clean water or sustainably improving agricultural yields, their interest skyrockets again. It’s all in how you present it. When presented that way to girls, this is what they think of when they think of engineering:

Women and engineering

It’s just one perspective, but it goes to show just how important language is in formulating one’s thought processes, and perhaps one’s future opportunities as well.

Just last week, an article that highlighted research by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge showed that since 1900, as women’s participation grew in post-secondary education and the workforce, so did the prevalence of the female pronoun on the printed page. Does the increase in seeing the female pronoun encourage more women to participate in these formerly male-dominated fields? Is it a direct cause and effect? Chicken, egg? I’m not sure, but my instincts tell me that they’re intrinsically tied.

We’ve been having this conversation for many, many years. Language is an ever-evolving realm. We no longer speak in Shakespearean couplets, and every year new words are added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Resources such as Words That Count Women In by the Ontario Women’s Directorate and Talking Gender by Ruth King, both originally published in the early ’90s, introduced me to the power and impact of language. Having a young daughter also instilled in me the importance that my choices had in formulating her own internal messaging.

Instead of bowing to pressure or being derided for being too “politically correct,” I choose to use the power of language to be more inclusive and more accurate (after all, “staffing the table” is more accurate than “manning the table”), and this insight about the impact of changing the language around engineering continues to reinforce that this is a choice that has impact, not only for women in the field of technology, but ultimately for the betterment of our world all told.