Shining a light on women in STEM
Interview with Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day.
This interview is taken from Tease and Totes Wednesday Woman series. Suw Charman-Anderson is an author, social technologist and founder of Ada Lovelace Day (ALD), an international day of recognition and celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Here’s her story:
“Ada Lovelace is the embodiment of all the trials and tribulations that women throughout history have had to routinely deal with.”
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background — what you were like growing up?
Suw Charman-Anderson: I grew up in the countryside of East Dorset, England and was pretty nerdy from the off. I always yearned for a Meccano set, though never got one and had to make do with Lego!
Once I’d grown out of children’s books, I graduated straight to my Dad’s science fiction and fantasy collection, so went from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys to EE Doc Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and their peers. What really excited me, though, was when I was introduced to the work of Anne McCaffrey and, for the first time since Nancy Drew, I saw women in charge, female heroines, women who were fully-drawn characters with their own strengths and flaws. That was a revelation!
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love science. I was in the science club at my middle school, and went on to do maths, physics and chemistry at A Level, and later a Bachelor’s in geology.
Bardega: What first sparked your interest in tech and ultimately led to the career path you took?
Suw: My dad got a his first home computer when I was nine years old — a ZX80. He taught me how to write simple programs for it, but I didn’t get perhaps as much time to use the computer as I would have needed to really develop those skills. And because I didn’t know what useful things I could do with a computer, I didn’t ask for more time. I remember my brother using it, and the subsequent ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, to play games, which I thought were a huge waste of time. My Dad continued to buy new and better computers as they became affordable, and I remember using the Gem operating system on an Amstrad, before we moved to Windows 3.1 on an IBM clone.
Although I didn’t fully learn to program in Basic or any other languages, by my teens I had learnt program logic controllers. I had a summer job at my Dad’s small electronics company, and devised and wrote the ladder diagrams for the PLCs (programmable logic controller) to control the water flow through a water purification plant control systems he was working on. I also programmed the EPROMs, or erasable programmable read-only memory chip, which would then be inserted into the PLC, and even visited clients with him.
Throughout my teens, I worked for both my dad and one of my uncles, both of whom were in the electronics industry. I did everything from building wiring looms to soldering up circuit boards to winding transformers, and everything in between. There were a lot of women doing that kind of work, but it was very repetitive and mundane work, and I didn’t view it as a potential career.
I graduated from Cardiff University with a 2:1 in Geology, but it was almost impossible to get a job as a geologist as there was an industry-wide hiring freeze. So I worked for two years at a science journal publishers, then got a job at a popular music school before quitting that to become a music journalist.
It was only in the late 90s that I got back into technology, becoming a web designer. This was when all you really needed was ability to write HTML and a sensible eye for design and white space. After the dot-com crash, though, I was out of work for nearly a year, before starting my own, ultimately doomed startup.
Finally, in 2004 I started working as a “blog consultant”, which sounds so quaint now! I developed my work as the field of social media itself developed, focusing mostly on collaboration and community, with a little bit of social technology design. I continued that business until early 2015, when I started working full time on Ada Lovelace Day.
“I still look back at the history of social media and online communities, and I see women’s contributions being completely erased.”
Bardega: You founded the Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate and promote women in STEM — was this something you had been thinking about for a while and how did you make it happen?
Suw: I had a slow-dawning realisation over a couple of years that women in tech were getting a raw deal. I’d not really been aware of sexism at university, even though when I look back now, I clearly had experienced it. I just didn’t have the awareness, or the vocabulary, to realise what was going on and even if I had, I don’t know what I would have done about it.
By 2007/08, though, I was painfully aware that women were being sidelined. I’d been to enough tech conferences that were dominated by men to realise that things just weren’t right. And I’d also had frustrating conversations with event organisers who didn’t seem to value my expertise. In one example, I was invited to a conference because, the organiser said, “I’ve heard that you type really fast”. I was well-known for taking detailed notes at conferences, and as a journalist I would have been happy to have been paid to cover the conference, but I would have much preferred to have been invited because of my expertise in social media.
Being self-employed, the sexism you see is often different in its expression to the experiences of women in employment. When you’re self-employed, the sexism manifests itself in all the contracts you don’t get, all the meetings that start off so positively but then don’t result in work and, the version I particularly hate, all the meetings where men want to “Just pick your brains for a bit”, but who don’t feel your expertise is worth paying for.
In rather the same way that weather is not the same as climate, and that one bad storm can’t be definitively said to be a direct result of climate change, it’s very difficult to point at one meeting and say, “That was sexist”, but the overall pattern was clear. And it was infuriating, given that I was literally one of the earliest consultants working in social media, even before it was called that. I still look back at the history of social media and online communities, and I see women’s contributions being completely erased. We desperately need a feminist history of the web and social media to provide some balance to current narratives. (NB Female Innovators at Work is out now).
So this slow boil came to a head in late 2008, when I saw yet another conference with hardly any women in the speaker line-up. I just had to do something. At around that time, I’d stumbled on some research by a psychologist called Penelope Lockwood who found that women need female role models more than men need male role models. And that felt achievable — we just needed to talk more about the work of women in tech, maybe through blog posts.
And so the first Ada Lovelace Day was born — a day of blogging about women in tech. All I did was set up a pledge on the now archived PledgeBank, and a friend set up a Facebook page. We told everyone we knew, and the idea spread like wildfire. In the end we had nearly 2,000 people signed up via PledgeBank, and another 2,000 on Facebook. The day just seemed to catch the zeitgeist, as I ended up appearing on the BBC News channel, and got coverage in all the major newspapers.
Quite a few participants wrote blog posts about women in science, so the next year I just went with the flow and made it specifically a women in STEM event.
Bardega: Do you still see a lot of gender discrimination in STEM fields today? How do you think we encourage more young girls into the field?
Suw: There’s still a huge amount of gender discrimination in STEM, yes. We’re regularly seeing stories of discrimination in the media, and the statistics are still pretty terrible. For example:
46% of the UK workforce are women
13–17% of STEM workforce are women
11% of IT specialists are women
6–8% of engineers are women
Figures vary depending on which survey or report you read, but they are all dire. Of course, there are exceptions. In the UK, 60% of medicine undergraduates and 75% of veterinary science undergraduates are women. This seems to support the theory that girls and women are drawn to areas of science which are seen as socially worthwhile and caring, so rather than bucking the trend, these are showing a reinforcement of gender stereotypes. However, these statistics also prove that women do not lack ambition or ability.
In terms of how we encourage more young girls to think of STEM as a potential area of study and work, we first need to better understand how girls develop their self-identity, how they create their personal relationship to the STEM world, and how they think of their future. We also need to better understand the barriers that prevent them from self-conceptualising as “a girl interested in STEM”.
It is an immensely complicated problem, although we do have some evidence to draw on. Professor Averil Macdonald’s report, Not For People Like Me, is great round-up of the what we know, although there’s so much more work that needs to be done. Ultimately, there is no magic bullet, no single strategy that will solve this problem. We need to take a pluralistic view, and support projects that take different — and even seemingly contradictory — approaches, because one size does not fit all.
In terms of concrete things that anyone can do, I’d suggest:
- Buy your daughters, nieces and granddaughters STEM-related toys from day one. This can be a bit of a challenge, because the toy industry uses gender to segregate toys so you might have to hunt, but playing with STEM-related toys stimulates curiosity and helps normalise the idea that STEM is indeed for girls.
- Talk to your daughters about the STEM-y things that you find interesting. There is some evidence that the most reliable predictor of whether a girl will go into STEM is the “STEM capital” of her parents, i.e. at least one of her parents is knowledgeable about or working in STEM. So share your enthusiasm!
- Offer up a variety of female STEM role models, particularly women who “look like” your daughter. We all relate more strongly to people we think are like like us, so go beyond the obvious women in STEM and search for role models who are more like your daughter, in looks, background, and interest.
- Teach resilience in the face of failure and de-emphasise “braininess”. A lot of people believe that in order to study STEM, one needs to be exceptionally intelligent, but talk to real scientists and you’ll find that it’s more important to develop traits like persistence — even stubbornness — in the face of a challenge, a willingness to fail, and a desire to find the right answer after finding a wrong one. Most girls do not self-identify as “brainy” or see themselves as exceptional, so they rule themselves out of STEM careers with the false assumption that they aren’t good enough. In fact, statistically girls are much better than boys at STEM subjects, but they don’t always believe it!
Bardega: What/who inspires you and why?
Suw: I’ve been inspired by many people throughout my life, sometimes for quite specific reasons. I moved to America in 2014, and had to spend five months apart from my husband as I waited for my visa to come through. The story of Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese physicist who moved to the US to study just before WW2 broke out, and who was separated from her family for eight years, was at that point very inspiring to me!
Obviously Ada Lovelace has also been a huge inspiration over recent years, not least because she really embodies the complexity of real women’s involvement in STEM. Her story is not simple, she is not a perfect heroine, there’s a whole lot we don’t know about her, and her position in history has been disputed by modern commentators. She’s like an embodiment of all the trials and tribulations that women throughout history have had to routinely deal with.
And I draw my inspiration from many people outside of STEM too. Author Neil Gaiman has been a huge influence on my way of thinking for a long time now. It’s not just that I love his work, but that his advice on creativity is both fabulous and as valid for STEM as it is for the humanities. He could have just as easily have said “do good science”. But Neil is also inspiring because of how he deals with everyone around him, with kindness, empathy and grace. He has never forgotten what it’s like to be a fan, and has an infectious enthusiasm for other people’s work that is inspiring.
“Make it a priority at all times to find the people who are like you, because although you believe you are alone, you are not.”
Bardega: Finally what advice would you give a younger Suw?
Suw: This is always a tricky question to answer. Whatever the ups and downs of my life, I like where I am and who I am now. I love my job, I love my husband, I love my cats and where I’m living. I’ve certainly had some bleak times, but if I gave my younger self advice, and my younger self acted upon that advice, would I now be in a better or worse situation?
If I were to give young Suw advice, though, on the assumption that I end up where I am now but with perhaps a little less stress along the way, I would primarily tell her to find her peers. Make it a priority at all times to find the people who are like you, because although you believe you are alone, you are not. There are people out there who are like you, who understand you, who like the same things you like, who laugh at the same things you laugh at.
Sometimes, when you are that nerdy girl sitting in physics class, wondering why there aren’t more girls there, it’s easy to believe that you’re so weird that you must be alone. But there are people like you out there, and they can give you help, guidance and support when you inevitably need it. Be brave. Seek them out. You’ll like them, and they’ll like you.
More information about the Ada Lovelace Day can be found on ALD website.