How to be a role model part 3 – Father and daughter

I have a phantastic coach, who helps me outline my goals and frame the ghosts from the past. She encouraged me to share my personal story in this blog to inspire young women to pursue a technical career and never to give up no matter what roadblocks turn up.

In one of my previous blog posts I asked myself the question if I can be a trustworthy role model while I am struggling so much to move my career forward. She ensured me that my story with all its ups and downs will resonate with young women. I am therefore going to give it a try.

My story starts in the ‘roaring’ sixties in a sleepy town in the middle of the Netherlands where my father had been offered a job in Philips’ newly formed computer division. We, my mother, my younger sister and brothers and I followed him. It was in the conservative climate of this leafy town that I spent part of my primary school time and all of my high school time. My father was always busy with his work and career, my mother was at home taking care of the four children. That was the normal pattern in those days.

As I was a clever girl my parents wanted me to go to a gymnasium after primary school. The local gymnasium was a small school with several 100 students (today they have 660 and are growing steadily). Being a small, dedicated gymnasium, they had only one teacher for most of the topics. During my first three years in high school the teachers for the three sciences subjects, mathematics, chemistry and physics had trouble keeping order in the class. Next to that my father’s mental picture of the world did not include girls in technology. This was simply not something that he could envision. As a result my notes for the sciences dropped dramatically and I developed a fear of being unable to ever meet my father’s high expectations. I chose a package containing languages, litterature and history in stead and when I left school saw no other possibility than to embark on a language study – in my case Russian and Polish.

After having finished my bachelor’s in Slavic languages I shifted to linguistics and towards the end of my studies it gradually became clear to me that I had made the wrong choices in high school. I could not imagine myself to be a translator of Russian texts for the rest of my life. I regretted the fact that I had not resisted my father’s conservative opinions and insisted that he helped me with sciences in the same way that he helped my two younger brothers. Alas – there is no way to turn back time.

I finished my master’s in linguistics – a painful process – and decided to register for a study of computer science. At that same time my father had just started a new curriculum of computer science at the university of Twente where he had been a professor since 1964. When I told my father that I was coming to join his new curriculum as one of his first students his reaction was : “Are you sure? That is far too difficult for you!”. But at that time I was determined and strong enough to resist his old-fashioned and protective views.

The first years were difficult – I had to close the gaps in my mathematical knowledge all by myself to be able to pass the analytics exams – but fortunately I was successful and although almost 50% of the 150 new computer science students left after the first year I wasn’t one of them. My father finally understood that I was going to stay and started to offer his help. This marked an important change in our relationship.

It took me 4,5 years to finish the university study of computer science and earn a master’s degree – not bad for a girl with a deficient previous education! During the major part of those years my father was my role model, my supporter and the first person I would turn to with questions. Indirectly he helped me find a job at IBM.

It made me so proud to have a real job with a real salary! To be financially independent! And I loved the work….I loved writing programs, test them and see that they made something happen inside the machine. And later, when we went into services and I started to work for customers, I loved to experience all those different company cultures and to learn about all those different businesses! If I would have sticked with languages I never would have had those opportunities!

My father passed away in 1998 and I miss him every day. I miss the conversations about the technical topics, the new developments and emerging technologies, the future of IT. How he would have loved to be part of all that! He was my first role model. This blog was written in his honour. The attached picture shows the perfectly squared square of order 21, my father’s invention, calculated in 1978 at Twente university using numerical algorithms. A tapestry with this ( the only one of the lowest order ) solution of this mathematical problem decorates our living room…

More on perfectly squared squares can be found here


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