Looking After the Ada’s of the Future

Ada Lovelace Day (on Tuesday) is not just a day for celebrating one remarkable aristocratic woman who dared to break the mould the majority of her female colleagues were content to slot into, it is a day to look forward to a world in which women do not feel there is a mould that they are expected to occupy – be it in the world of technology, science or in any other milieu. Lovelace perhaps inherited her father’s (Lord Byron) tendency to be unconventional; her mother (Anne Isabella Byron) was certainly terrified his genes might out, which was why Ada was educated in maths and science to counteract any poetic tendencies. Through her interactions with Charles Babbage Ada was able to turn her indubitably able brain to fascinating challenges as Babbage developed the concept of his difference machine. Like Mary Somerville, her sometime mentor, she was able to approach the world of mathematics through the more appropriately feminine (in 19th century terms) route of translating a male master’s work. It was Laplace in Somerville’s case and Luigi Menabrea‘s memoir on Babbage’s proposed machine, the Analytical Engine, in Lovelace’s. But, for the average woman of the nineteenth century, even the average middle-class or aristocratic woman, education in the maths and exact sciences was simply not on offer.

So, we have progressed. We have progressed significantly. Unlike Jocelyn Bell Burnell in the 1960’s, female physics students now are unlikely to be cat-called as they enter a lecture theatre; there are no quotas for women entering medical school (as was the case in my undergraduate days in the 1970’s) and the British Antarctic Survey has no problems with allowing women onto their Antarctic scientific stations, again something that applied to my generation of aspiring female Antarctic scientists and engineers. Nevertheless, active sexual harassment of students is still an issue, as the recent story of University of California astronomer Geoff Marcy makes clear. Particularly shocking as that university seems to think that at the end of a long enquiry a mild reprimand not to continue to harass is an adequate response. Just as with equal pay which, 40+ years on from the Equal Pay Act still can seem like a distant dream, the playing field for women in science remains anything but level.

This isn’t a case of simply bashing men either. The evidence is that women are as prone to ‘unconscious bias’ as men, something the depressing 2012 PNAS study made all too clear. I would like to think I am free of such biases, or at least so well aware of any instantaneous stereotyping that I may be liable to that I am able to overcome it, but can I be sure? My score on the Project Implicit test – which deals with that instantaneous response – is certainly skewed towards associating men more than women with science. I need some test of my slower and more considered response to identify whether or not in practice on an appointment committee I am still likely to exhibit bias, although I don’t know if such a sort of test exists.

As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on Tuesday, as we celebrate all the women who are already active and making a difference in their many and various spheres of science around the world (the Day has indeed become an international celebration as its progenitor makes clear) we should never lose sight of all those young girls who are prevented from ever embarking on the study of a subject that might be the focus of their dreams and talent alike. At the fundamental level of a basic education this is the campaign that Malala fights with such passion, but in those countries where no one disputes the right of a girl to education itself, we can still hinder their progression in many subtle ways. And those who make it into higher or further education often continue to find themselves fighting against those microinequities that hold them back or cause them to lose energy to the extent they give up that fight and move into some other occupation.

If women are less likely to reach the higher echelons of science, as is demonstrably the case, the reasons are many and complex. Interventions to get girls into the physical sciences at A levels and beyond have to be part of this equation, and campaigns such as the WISE Campaign ‘People like me’  launched last month, or resources produced by the Institute of Physics for teachers and pupils alike are important; possibly so is the Pretty Curious campaign recently launched by EDF, although that has had a mixed reception. My own view of these critical early years are that it is the media, parents and society in general who collectively produce a culture where many girls have to fight against the stream if they are to stick with subjects such as physics. Unfortunately society is a tricky beast to tame and change.

What should be easier to modify is what happens thereafter. By this stage it is more likely to be the behaviour of peers and more senior STEM professionals that matters rather than something as abstract as society. The Athena Swan awards have done much to raise awareness and yet still change is slow to come. I have just come back from an ERC Scientific Council meeting where the issue of the relatively lower success rate of women compared with men was discussed (yet again), with the effect being most pronounced in, surprisingly perhaps, the Life Sciences domain. It is all too easy to point fingers at the panels and scream sexist foul. But, increasingly, I am coming to believe the fault lies not with the funders (the ERC or any of the UK Research Councils and charities), or at least not solely with them but with the microinequities closer to home.

Are the young women sponsored/mentored/ advised to the same extent as the young men? Do they feel as confident to ask for help from their colleagues and if not why not? Have they had the same opportunities to present high level talks at international conferences as their male colleagues (given the number of all-male conference platforms still occurring the answer to that is pretty obvious) and has their work been fairly recognized in first name papers? Unfortunately, all too often I fear the answer to these questions will come out to the women’s detriment. Some evidence, although most certainly not proof, that the problem may lie in their home communities and not in the panels’ delinquent behaviour can be found in the fact that ERC Advanced Investigator grants is where the difference in success rates is smallest, indeed all but zero. Women whose experience and track records have enabled them to stick with the academic path to these highest ranks and for whom the support of others is probably least important, match the men in success, even though their absolute numbers are small.

So we should all look close to home and at our own behaviour towards the Ada’s of tomorrow we encounter. Do we encourage, support and champion their actions, or do we look the other way and leave it to others? Let Ada Lovelace Day be a day to reflect on our own behaviour before casting stones at other people and institutions. #just1action4WIS.

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