Ada Lovelace Day 2020 took place on 13 October and Scottish colleges like West Lothian College are ADAmant that we will attract more girls and women into science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM).
The following post is an extended version of one published by TES on Ada Lovelace Day this year.
Colleges across Scotland work with schools, employers and national organisations to raise awareness of opportunities for women in STEM sectors, encourage take-up of STEM courses by girls and women, and help students succeed on their courses.
Many people argue that there has never been a better time to be a woman in STEM. With tens of thousands of high value, high quality jobs in sectors like digital and engineering, employers don’t just NEED women to fill these jobs, they really WANT them because of the skills they bring!
And, increasingly there are more diverse and equally valued routes to becoming a STEM professional – through college, apprenticeships and university.
But, we have a problem.
The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, and the proportion of young women taking STEM subjects at school, college and university is stubbornly low. Incredibly, there is a smaller proportion of women studying and working in computing and digital technology now than when I was a computing graduate 30 years ago!
Throughout history, women have played an important role in STEM. It’s important to recognise women from the past and present to stake our claim in this exciting world.
That’s why the corridor leading to West Lothian College’s cyber labs, which is covered from floor to ceiling with the history of computing, includes so many women who have been digital pioneers over the years.
Women like Ada Lovelace, the mother of programming born 200 years ago, who wrote the first ever computer programme 100 years before computers were even invented! Unlike her mentor Charles Babbage, whose analytical engine was the forerunner of the physical computer, Ada had the vision to imagine that a computer could create images and music, and not just do complicated sums.
Women like Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, born in 1780 who, despite living in an age when women were discouraged from studying science, is credited with an instrumental role in the discovery of Neptune. Mary was the young Ada Lovelace ‘s mathematics tutor and mentor.
Women like Florence Nightingale, well known for her dedication to injured soldiers during the Crimean War, but less famous for her mathematical ability. Florence’s analysis of large amounts of data, presented graphically, demonstrated that significantly more men were dying from preventable diseases in hospital than from wounds inflicted in battle. This led to the government allocating funds to improve the cleanliness of hospitals. Hundreds of years before the terms ‘big data’, ‘data scientist’ and ‘data visualisation’ became the latest big things, Florence was the real deal!
It is not just rich, privileged women who have made an impact over the centuries. Jeannie Riley, one of many Glasgow female munitions workers during the First World War, dreamed of becoming an engineer. Sadly, when Jeanie’s husband and other men returned from the trenches in France, the aspirations of Jeanie and of women like her were denied when they had to give their jobs back to the men.
Ada Lovelace Day is also about recognising today’s female pioneers.
Women like Toni Scullion, a multi-award-winning computing science teacher at a secondary school in West Lothian, and founder of dressCode, a charity that aims to attract more girls into computing. Her work in raising the profile of computing science as a subject at schools, and in helping to close the gender gap in tech has been recognised by many awards.
As a woman who started her career as an IT specialist in the mid 1980s, I’ve seen many cycles of campaigns to persuade women to choose computing and other STEM areas. Such are the odds stacked against them, most of these campaigns have been remarkably unsuccessful!
In the IT sector I chose to enter, the numbers of women choosing computing science went into freefall in the mid-1980s, the decline continued through the late 1990s when it levelled off, only to drop significantly again in the first decade of this century.
But we can’t give up!
Initiatives like Ada Lovelace Day are about celebrating pioneering women in fields like computing. More importantly, they are about stimulating interest in girls and women in careers in STEM industries.
Tomorrow’s women in STEM are the girls in today’s nursery, primary and secondary schools – some of whom are connecting to engineering, science, construction and technology through activities led by colleges like my own in partnership with DYW regional groups and organisations like SmartSTEMs.
At West Lothian College we are ADAmant that we will help to eliminate gender stereotyping in career and learning choices. And that we will encourage more girls and women to embark on exciting STEM courses and careers.
If you’d like to join us, please get in touch.