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Get technical girls - it's child's play

Successful female scientists start young, reports Louise Jury
IF YOU want your daughter to succeed, buy her a Meccano set. That is the advice from Britain's top female engineers and scientists.

Marie-Noelle Barton, who heads an Engineering Council campaign to encourage girls into science, said some of Britain's most successful women had their careers shaped by the toys they played with as a child.

And even girls who ended up working nowhere near a microchip or a microscope could benefit from a better grasp of science and technology.

"It's a question of giving them experience and confidence with technology so that when they are confronted by a computer or a fax machine then they don't just shrink away and say, 'I'm a woman, I can't do it,' " Mrs Barton said. "At the Engineering Council we want more women to be engineers. But we realise that lots of women do not deal with technology with the confidence that they should and therefore they might not be getting the jobs they want. Technology is so widespread."

Research just published and carried out by East Anglia University for the Engineering Council's campaign, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), suggested that girls should be encouraged from an early age to play with scientific and constructional toys such as Meccano, Technical Lego and chemistry sets. Otherwise, the consequence of "socialisation" into stereotypical roles was that comparatively few girls studied science and engineering at university.

Only 14 per cent of those on university engineering courses are women, although this figure has increased from 7 per cent in 1984.

Dr Julia King, the 43-year-old director of advanced engineering for Rolls Royce industrial businesses, said as a child she had lots of dolls - whose hair she cut off - but she also adored Scalextric and Lego. The final spur was growing up in a household without any men - her parents were divorced - which meant she learned to change fuses and attempted to fix anything which was not working.

"When the sewing machine went wrong I had to find out what to do with it because there wasn't a man to do it."

The experience has made her conscious of the presents she gives children in her family. "I always give them constructional things - everybody should have those," she said.

Dr Jacqueline Mitton of the Royal Astronomical Society enjoyed Minibrix - a kind of rubber predecessor of Lego - when she was a girl. She recalled being furious that her school split the toys for afternoon play into boys' toys and girls' toys. "Girls could not play with the construction toys like Meccano and Minibrix which were given to the boys. The sense of jealousy and indignation that fired is one of the strongest recollections of that early time in my life," she said. "That was how I came to pester my parents until they got me my own set of Minibrix."

A chemistry set she was given at the age of 11 or 12 was the spur to science for Dr Sue Ion, now British Nuclear Fuels' director of technology and operations. She followed this up at the age of 16 to 18 by building models of chemical compounds.

Carol Vorderman, the mathematical whizz on television's Countdown programme and a trained engineer, loved her Spirograph - spiral drawing kit - and the mental challenge of a chess set bought for 6d from a jumble sale a major influence.

Claire Curtis-Thomas, MP for Crosby and a chartered engineer, was inspired at the age of eight when she rewired her mother's vacuum cleaner.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, head of the Open University's physics department, said: "I certainly think it would be a shame if girls were only exposed to dolls and toy carpet sweepers." She enjoyed dolls and Meccano when she was little and an electric train when older.

Although more women were going into physics, they were not feeding through to the higher levels of the subject, she said. "When I was appointed to this chair six or seven years ago my appointment doubled the number of women who chaired physics departments in Britain." There are still only a handful of women chairing university physics departments.