Today is Ada Lovelace day. This evening I’ll be celebrating the very first woman computer scientist, and all who have followed in her footsteps, in the Great Hall of my old university, Imperial College.
I’m looking forward to hearing from the other speakers Fran Scott, Prof Molly Stevens, Hazel Gibson, Leila Johnston, Prof Sophie Scott, Dr Bernadette Byrne, and MC comedian Helen Arney, as well as saying my bit on how women can ‘reclaim the byte!’
It is ironic in some ways to be celebrating women in ICT in the institution where I first experienced just how much of a minority we are.
Just four percent
When I went to Imperial in 1984 to study electrical and electronic engineering, 12 percent of my class was female. Now it is 16 percent.
That is an amazingly small increase in over a quarter of a century. Indeed if we carry on at that rate we would not achieve gender balance in elec engineering degree courses until towards the end of the 24th century.
And when it comes to the profession, they lag well behind the student body. Once I’d left university I never again had a female lab partner.
So I am determined to use my unique position as member of parliament and a female engineer to highlight the need for more women in technology.
Although I still do meet with scepticism, resistance, sexism and indifference at times, I have to say that I am now feeling relatively positive about the possibility of seeing real change in my lifetime.
An example of positive consensus is a meeting I organised last Thursday, following on from my April parliamentary debate on attracting girls into ICT .
In that debate the education minister, Elizabeth Truss, agreed with me on the importance of attracting girls into ICT. What she did not appear to agree with was the need to target girls specifically.
“We have programmes for getting girls to study physics, such as the Stimulating Physics Network. However, our view is that so few students are learning programming skills at an early age that the best thing to do is to have a universal programme that reaches everybody,” she said.
Both general and gender-specific campaigns needed
I believe we need both universal programmes and gender-targeted ones. Our society is unfortunately not gender blind, as the @lettoysbetoys and @everydaysexism campaigns highlight. Girls and boys are influenced in their early preferences and self-belief by society and part, though not all, of any attempt to overcome that must be gender specific.
Rather than harangue the minister myself on the subject I thought it would be much more credible if I took a range of groups working in this area to harangue her directly.
As it happened no haranguing was necessary. Instead there was a good deal of agreement.
- Belinda Parmar from Lady Geek presented the minister with a copy of Little Miss Geek and highlighted their ‘Putting the Her in Hero’ campaign.
- Susan Scurlock, founder & CEO, Primary Engineer, talked about why giving girls the experience of engineering is so vital, enabling them to identify with roles in industry.
- Dr Jane Andrews and Dr Robin Clark, Aston University Engineering Education Research Group, set out the academic and practical evidence underpinning the need for targeting.
- ScienceGrrl ’s Dr Anna Zecharia impressed the minister with their fantastic calendar and programme of activities.
- Helen Wollaston of WISE described their Big Bang Fair workshops which gave girls the chance to meet young female role models and to discuss stereotyped comments such as "What do you want to do technology for, it will be full of geeks."
- Christine Townley, from the Construction Youth Trust, highlighted how even fewer girls go into the construction industry than engineering, and how prejudices against apprentices is a big part of that.
- Women’s Engineering Society’s Dr Sarah Peers talked about their recent targeting activities including MentorSET, My Sparkling Career and She's an Engineer.
Hearing such a wide range of programmes was heartening and the minister agreed that we needed to make it easier for schools and businesses to access them. A follow-up meeting will include stakeholders such as Royal Academy of Engineering, and look at how these programmes can be co-ordinated and integrated into other departmental activity, such as social media.
In the interests of harmony I managed to stopped myself pointing out to the minister that the UK Resource Centre for women in SET was designed by the last government to be exactly that, a one-stop shop for supporting women into STEM.
Then this government stopped funding them...
On Ada Lovelace day, better to celebrate by looking forward!
Chi Onwurah is Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister and MP for Newcastle Central