Amazing but few: the women shaking up science

Fellowship winners: (Left to right) Drs Lythgoe, Spottiswoode, Srinivasan and Giordani © Unesco

She was the daughter of a poet and the world’s first computer programmer; she was born 200 years ago. But there is still a shocking lack of women in scientific careers. Why?

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Born in 1815, she was instructed in science, logic and mathematics from an early age. Her mother Annabella was married to the rakish Romantic poet Lord Byron, famous for his ‘mad, bad’ charm, and she was terrified that their daughter would grow up with the same ‘poetic’ temperament.

The lessons paid off. When Ada met Charles Babbage, she was captivated by his designs for a “difference engine” which would perform mathematical calculations. While translating an article on the design, she made her own extensive notes which included some of the world’s first “computer programs”. She went on to explain that it could not only be used for numbers, but one day also letters and music. Without realising, she had predicted a future of computing which would not emerge for another hundred years.

Babbage made sure that Lovelace’s work was not forgotten. But throughout history, many female scientists were not so lucky; they were often dismissed as “assistants” and their discoveries sidelined.

Now, despite leaps forward in gender equality, women still only make up 13% of those in scientific, mathematical, engineering and technological careers (STEM). But the contributions they make are changing the world. Drs Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, for example, helped to develop the Crispr gene-editing technique which could one day cure genetic diseases, modify crops or even de-extinct a once-lost species.

Meanwhile, programmes such as Ada Lovelace Day and the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science fellowships attempt to redress the balance, and help female scientists of the future. The fellowship winners for 2015 may not be famous yet, but they specialise in everything from the universe’s mysterious dark energy, to the internal body clocks which regulate human life, to cancer’s cellular cannibalism which claims millions of lives each year.

In the genes?

So why are there so few women scientists? Some argue that it is simply because not many women are interested in studying the subject in the first place. Many are drawn to other subjects, whether because of a lack of confidence or the idea that science is more of a “boys’ club”. We should celebrate the women who succeed, but there is no point in criticising those who choose to do something else.

Others argue that women are being held back from studying science by a sexist industry. They have no less ability — often their school marks are higher than boys’. But only a few months ago Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt resigned after lamenting the “trouble with girls” in the lab. If that attitude is representative of male dominated science, is it any wonder women are made to feel they cannot succeed?

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite scientific role model?
  2. Why do fewer women choose to study science subjects?

Activities

  1. Ada Lovelace used to design imaginary boats and steam engines as a child. Draw and label your own fantasy machine. Be creative!
  2. Choose a female scientist — try looking under Become An Expert for more inspiration — and create a presentation explaining her contributions.

Some People Say...

“The only thing holding girls back is themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter if women are doing what they love?
Of course, when you are thinking about your career you should start with the things that you enjoy most. But campaigners for more women in science worry that girls are discouraged from specialising in the field from an early age — if they think the subject is not “for them”, they may never discover the talent they have for it.
I’m a girl, and I want to be a scientist.
That’s wonderful! There are many different types of scientific jobs, and there is so much left to discover. It goes without saying that you should continue working hard in science subjects in school. But remember not to be discouraged if things do not immediately go to plan. Science is all about overcoming failure and solving problems. So don’t give up!

Word Watch

Computing
The “prophet of the computer age” and “Enchantress of Numbers” — as she has been called — predicted that a machine which could process numbers could use the same technique to manipulate symbols, such as letters, and other more creative processes. Her work was discovered and expanded upon in the 1950s.
Crispr
This is the name for short stretches of DNA found in bacteria which are used to deactivate viruses. Researchers realised that it could be used to quickly and neatly ‘edit’ other types of DNA as well. For example, it could be used to target specific genes which cause diseases.
Dark energy
It makes up around 68% of everything in the universe, but very little is known about dark energy — except that it somehow affects the expansion of the universe.
Body clocks
Every cell in the body is controlled by a ‘circadian clock’ which keeps to a roughly 24-hour rhythm. This is why our bodies tend to wake up at the same time most days, or suffer jet lag when we switch time zones.
Cellular cannibalism
This is when a large cell engulfs and destroys a smaller cell in its cytoplasm.