As you may or may not have heard, today is Ada Lovelace day – a day to celebrate, encourage, highlight and prompt discussion on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). As you’ll have guessed from my site name, I am pretty passionate about all things STEM, and being female, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to offer my thoughts on women in these magnificent fields.
Before I begin, Ada Lovelace was a mathematician who is best known for writing a comprehensive article on Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’ (a general-purpose computer which was proposed 100 years before one was actually built). What was so special about her article is that she was able to articulate the possibilities that lay in computing, taking it far beyond number calculations into the realms of complex problem solving and sheer creation. Her description of how the machine could compute Bernoulli numbers is considered to be the first publication of a computer algorithm – making her widely recognised as the first computer programmer.
I’ve always been a little bit hesitant when it comes to talking about women in STEM, mainly because I am lucky in that I don’t feel I have truly felt the consequences of the problem. I mean, there were more guys than girls in my physics lectures at university, but in maths lectures I remember it being pretty even. When I worked as an analyst at an investment bank, I was one of very few girls on the scheme, but it’s not something I really thought about until someone outside of work asked how many fellow females there were. I’ve been to plenty of talks and events and competitions on STEM subjects over the years, but I guess looking around and taking note of the gender of the attendees was never really something I did – though I’m sure, looking back, I would have been in the minority.
It’s not that I don’t think the problem exists (there are plenty of stories, schemes and statistics that cannot be argued with), but I guess because STEM has always been my passion, I’ve not really known what it’s like to not be part of this incredible world, or thought deeply about what it’s taken to get me here.
I was a total tomboy at school. I got teased a lot for it – I went from a small primary school where we were naïve but anything was accepted, to a big high school where my love of competitive sport and quick calculations resulted in some imaginative nicknames – but for the most part I stuck to my guns, and with the support of an awesome set of parents, I continued feeding my ‘traditionally male’ academic passions.
But no wonder so many girls end up with a lacking passion of STEM.
So many times I could have fallen out of love with what was ‘me’ and conformed to ‘being a girl’ – I could have made those choices to be part of the ‘in crew’ as oppose to taking the harder ‘different’ path. I grew up playing football and rugby, so walking into a room dominated by men didn’t faze me, but what if I’d been put off at an earlier age? What if my mum had wanted a ‘good little girl’ instead of a ‘completely herself boisterous kid’?
It makes you realise how much bigger ‘women in STEM’ really is – it’s not just about getting companies closer to 50:50, it’s about changing attitudes towards what is expected of boys and girls, of all ages.
I wrote a post a few weeks ago about why science needs advertising (spoiler: because it’s just so bloody wonderful, I want more people to be as excited by it as I am) so my main hope for Ada Lovelace day is that it does all the wonderful stuff like showing girls the opportunities that lie in STEM, like championing women whose contributions have been diluted because of their gender, like encouraging women to pass on their knowledge to one another…but above all, I’d love for it to give all women a taste of that sensation of wonder, of new-found knowledge and of mind-opening realisation, so that no matter what anyone said, they’d just HAVE to satisfy their curiosity and get to be a part of the cracking world of STEM.