March 24th is Ada Lovelace day. For more information, see http://www.pledgebank.com/AdaLovelaceDay
Here is my Ada Lovelace post:
I really struggled to come up with a woman in technology to write about here. I was never supervised by or with another female for the whole of my four-year physics degree from 1997-2001, although there were a few female lecturers. To be fair to my college in Cambridge, my year was an exception and they were quite shocked (as I was) when I pointed it out just before I graduated. I thought about it then because of the conversation I was having with one of my tutors, but it hadn’t occurred to me at any point along the way. And it didn’t bother me. I just studied, like everyone else. And I did well. It never crossed my mind, or the minds of any of us, that I should be treated differently. And I think that this is very common among women of my age (I’m 30). We have never experienced any direct sexism at all. Maybe we’re approaching the more difficult stage now, after we have dealt a first firm blow to the gender stereotypes. Soon we might be the ones needing flexible jobs so that we can take maternity leave and collect poorly kids from school to nurse them at home. But hopefully, our partners will be sharing equally in things like that and so we won’t be seen as a drag on an organisation solely because of our gender. But it is still true that we don’t have many females ahead of us in the system to look up to.
I don’t think about role models very much to start with, but when I tried to identify a female role model in the area of science and technology I drew almost a complete blank. I know a few more senior female researchers, but they weren’t highlighted in my mind specifically as female role-models. After thinking about it for a bit longer, I started to wonder what had happened to the other females who are my age that I’d worked with or known well along the way. So I googled the ones I could think of, and they all seem to be doing fantastically well. They’re still in science, and they are working in some great institutions and that’s inspiring to me. All of us struggle at times, and mostly it’s not anything to do with gender – it’s things like job stress, dealing with uncertainty and the insecurities of being a postdoc, and men are struggling with the same things. But still, you don’t want to be the only female scientist that you know. And I really like the feeling of there being a group of us female scientists, all going forward together. If something does come up that is more likely to bother a woman than a man, we have each other to talk to. We are all scientists by nature, and the most important thing is that circumstances in life (be they social or cultural or practical) don’t stop us being who we are and doing our bit for society in the way we know best – as scientists and university teachers and technologists.
So the females in technology that I want to highlight are those who are in my own age group, the ones who are blazing their own path in academia even though no-one has given them a role-model to follow. My friend Paula is now a senior research associate in Cambridge, doing amazing research into computational linguistics. The first time I met Paula we were both 18 and it was our first day at university. She told me that she wanted to be an astronaut and then was so grateful that I didn’t laugh at her (something that others had apparently done). She changed her mind about what she wanted to be, but she found the path she wanted to take and is very enthusiastic about it. Aldona and Debra were starting out as PhD students in the group I joined for six months at the University of Toronto. They are both now postdoctoral researchers in atmospheric science, having won fellowships to fund themselves. They were very aware of the issues surrounding being a woman in science, because we were all working for a female PI. Out of a group of 11 people, 10 were female. There was definitely a different group dynamic, but it worked. And Laura, who I worked with at Los Alamos. She had a young child running around, but it didn’t seem to hold her back. And she was all about the science.
I can’t finish without a mention of a technology role model that I didn’t have. My mum is a role model for me in many ways, but science and technology was one of the areas that she never really got a chance at. She’s good at maths, and she went to university in the late 60s to study physics. But she was the only woman in the whole of the physics department, and the male environment got to her so much that she left. She then worked as a computer programmer, but she was still very aware of the all-male environment around her. I remember her ranting when I was a kid about the pictures of naked women that were all over the office she worked in. When she pointed out that she found them offensive, she was ignored. I have a suspicion that she might have put some of those pictures in the shredder at some point. Good for her. After being a stay-at-home mum for me and my sister, she took up a career as a horticulturalist. Eventually she worked out that in spite of all the qualifications she had in that field, she’d make more money temping. And now she works in database management and general computer administration. I think she still struggles a bit because no-one really thinks that a woman of her age (and she’s not old!) might be capable of running computer systems and programming competently. So even though we are both in the workforce at the same time, she probably experiences more gender discrimination than me, even now. But she sticks with it. She knows what she’s good at. Maybe that’s the sort of role model we all really need from time to time – someone to remind us that even though we can still complain about the way things are, in general the treatment of women in science is really improving very quickly. And we all have to stick with it and do our best, and one day all this discrimination rubbish will just be a footnote in the history books.