POPAYAN – This Girl is on Fire

Jenny Delgado is a newly found hero of mine.  As with all the people I’ve met in Colombia, she exudes a warmth and friendliness that makes me feel instantly at ease, but on top of that she has a drive and fire for her career and outlook on life that is truly inspirational (pun intended). And girl power is a bit of a theme seen throughout my time in Popayan since women are well represented in the fire service here.

Jenny has been a firefighter for 14 years; she was a volunteer for the most part much like many of the firefighters who work at the station.  Following in the footsteps of her father who served for 42 years (never receiving a peso), she told me that she had to prove she was there not because of family connections but under her own merit.  As she put it, she wanted people to know that, “any woman could be as good as a man in the role”.  She obviously succeeded because she became the first female to ever be paid at the station. Apart from her father, Jenny’s sister is also a firefighter and it seems fairly common to have many family members in the service both as a tradition and source of pride.

Jenny Delgado and her sister
Firefighters’ Jenny Delgado and her sister

Volunteer firefighters at Popayan FD need to serve 300 hours a year including evening/night shifts and weekends and it normally needs to slot in with the firefighter’s day job.  Jenny herself was trained as a civil engineer and is currently working on the new fire station, soon to be opened at the airport.  Visiting the airport fire station was a great experience – we toured the brand-new facilities and engaged in a sweep of the runway following a report that a plane had hit a bird on take-off.  I was shown the new fire-fighting vehicles, equipment and station and there was a real sense of pride and growth – as if there was a new era on the horizon.

Guillermo Leon Valencia Airport
Guillermo Leon Valencia Airport Fire Station
The new Rosenbauer fire truck at the airport Fire Station

Popayan itself is a small, pretty town in Colombia with just a single fire station (in addition to the dedicated airport fire station).   Once funding is available a new station is also planned in the North of Popayan to improve response times.

On Wednesday nights the firefighters take part in training sessions featuring both theoretical and practical activities.  I was lucky enough to join in one such session which focused on cutting equipment.   It was here that I met Helda Saavedra.  There’s always a thought that despite a strong female presence, there can often be a limit to what a woman is allowed to achieve, but in 2013 Helda smashed through the glass ceiling to become Commander of Popayan Fire Department.

A Lieutenant being shown cutting equipment during training

During my time in Popayan I also met Laura Daniela Espinosa, a student studying environmental engineering and a volunteer firefighter.  She epitomised the passion for serving in such a role, keenly giving her time to learning and developing.  In a way I was almost jealous of this small group of people who very clearly loved what they did and cared for each other as if family.  Or, perhaps it was just the Colombian nature I had become so fond of!

Jenny Delgado, Laura Daniela Espinosa and Helda Saavedra

Women in ‘typically male’ roles such as fire has been a subject close to my heart as I’ve been a part of that world my whole career.  I use speech marks as my instincts tell me I shouldn’t be enforcing stereotypes; however, many exist for a reason and I have delved a little more into why biases exist and the damaging effect they can have on growth and development.

Firstly, I took the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) which looks at the user’s gender bias towards sciences and liberal arts.


I recommend people try it out to see how they fare.  My own results indicated I had a strong automatic response to males being more associated with science subjects than women.  I wanted to be sceptical considering my strong views on equality, but it’s hardly surprising considering the huge under-representation of other women present during my education and career.

I believe that the root cause of the problem begins in childhood.  Biases are pushed on us through the toys we play with and the TV we watch.  As girls you’re given dolls, told about fairies and shown ‘aspirational’ characters in the form of inept princesses that need to be rescued. In contrast to this tripe, the boys had trucks and computers and told they could fix anything and aspire to adventurous super heroes who always save the day.

There was little if any promotion of engineering in my all-girls secondary school and no female STEM role models were visible to me.  I knew I enjoyed technology but never had the confidence to believe engineering would ever be an option for me.  Whilst completing a questionnaire in college about my future career choices it was suggested that ‘dog groomer’ would be a fitting role.  Brilliant.  No wonder then, with this level of encouragement, that once I eventually chose engineering (following some initial poor decisions) I was the only woman to graduate in my particular branch of engineering that year.

Crippling anxiety was a huge issue for me in the early years of my career and I worked tirelessly to push myself to gain the confidence that seemed so natural in my male colleagues.  It was overwhelming as an early 20 something to walk into meetings full of much older men who in my head had prejudged my abilities the second I entered.  This is why, when on the odd occasion I met a female in those rooms, I instantly felt at ease.

However, a common theme amongst these women was that they were domineering in their approach – a no sh*t attitude that at the time I thought was incredible because they commanded a semi-fearful respect.  I now look back though with a tinge of sadness that these women may had to be this way, not by choice, but in order to get the respect they needed to do their work, to be ‘more male’.

It is now my belief that diversity in the workplace means diversity in the work being carried out; alternative perspectives that can adapt processes and feed creativity and ingenuity.  If we’re all cookie cut-outs of one another we run the risk of stifling innovation and not adapting to the functional needs of the many.   A good example of this is reflected in inclusive design.  Who better understands the needs of those with impaired mobility than those who have experienced mobility impairment?  The same can be applied to all needs of all people.  Whether its gender, mobility, culture; all will influence design solutions and alternative perspectives will enable a better understanding to develop them.

The more I’ve travelled, researched and talked to people across South America, the more I have appreciated the importance of understanding the needs of your environment and create adaptive rules tailored to suit your town, city, island, hut in the mountains – whatever!  It may seem wholly impractical but in a perfect world these rules should be formulated in consultation with diverse groups inputting experience from across age ranges and socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, mobility and so on.

You may think my experiences are all in the past so I’m out of touch, the world has changed; I mean we have female Ghostbusters now!  Yes, this is true, there has been a good attempt to even the playing field and media bias which is great.  But whilst travelling I met another mechanical Engineer, Jenny, 10 years my junior, living in the UK, who depressingly told me pretty much the same story.  Only girl graduating her course, complete under representation of women in the workplace…. etc etc.

So why are we still not getting enough women into Engineering?

If I had been asked for my views on female engineers a few years ago it would have been met with frustration. As a staunch believer in equality I’ve always wanted to be known as an Engineer rather than a female Engineer and hated when a distinction was made.

Controversially for many years, I was never a fan of women’s events such as International Women’s Day and International Women in Engineering Day.  I was particularly unimpressed with awards for women only in STEM subjects.   I felt that highlighting differences only enhanced an already ingrained bias.  It also implied that women needed their own category to ‘compete’ in the industry. If we stopped making a distinction, maybe the bias would disappear and we could all get on with our jobs in peace!

But now I’ve realised that without specific recognition, without publicity – how are the next generation of girls going to see what’s been achieved?  Who will they have to look up to?  Won’t we simply be destined to follow the same path over and over again unless we parade these women through the schools and say look – you can do it!

I don’t want these girls to have no visible precedence, to live with bias, uncertainty and swathes of doubt that hold them back from a career they would be fantastic in.

So, if you have a little girl now or in the future, encourage her to build, create, fix and engineer – tell her about the Jennys, the Lauras and the Heldas of the world and give her the confidence to realise she’s at no disadvantage to anyone else for being who she is. When more women are equally represented, I will return to my former beliefs – and you can just call me an Engineer.

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