Ada Lovelace Day 2016 saw the launch of a new award for women in maths and computing. Susan Watts hears from the 12 inaugural winners in this latest addition to the Suffrage Science scheme.
The Suffrage Science awards celebrate women in science for their scientific achievement and ability to inspire others. It encourages women to enter scientific subjects, and to stay long enough to reach senior leadership roles.
“At the turn of the century, the Suffragettes campaigned for women to get the vote. And in recognition of their immense courage and bravery they were given pieces of jewellery to commemorate what they’d achieved for women,” said Amanda Fisher, director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC)*. “So we decided that something should be done for women scientists to celebrate their contribution so we joined with design and jewellery students to make pieces for these amazingly talented women.”
The scheme began with a focus on women in the life sciences, the field of study closest to that of the institute. It expanded in 2013 to include a group of women in engineering and the physical sciences. This year’s addition of a third group recognises women in mathematics and computing.
The awards themselves are pieces of jewellery designed by students of the art and design college Central Saint Martins-UAL, long-standing science-arts collaborators with the CSC, with direction from course tutor, Giles Last and course director, Caroline Broadhead. Two winning designs are chosen from the year group, and crafted into actual pieces by jewellery-maker, Martin Baker.
The two existing groups each have their own pair of science-inspired items of jewellery and these “science heirlooms” have been handed on to several “generations” of awardees. For the new section, the students designed pieces inspired by themes such as beauty, simplicity and the search for ‘truth’ in mathematics, and the worlds of secret codes and machine language of computer science, as well as drawing on research into the history of the Suffragette movement.
The awards day itself was held on a bright October afternoon, and at a fitting venue, Bletchley Park. The winners were asked what the award meant to them, and how they might use it to help promote constructive change.
“The first thing I’d like to do is change the way we present and teach computing in school. I’d like to be very clear it’s a fundamental science,” said Muffy Calder, of the University of Glasgow.
Carron Shankland, of the University of Stirling, wanted to emphasise the potential for practical application too: “In the work that I’m doing now you’re taking that fundamental computing and applying it to other areas, so there’s that great opportunity to work with other disciplines.”
Guest speaker Sue Black, described her successful Saving Bletchley Park campaign, as well as her experience of motherhood and introduction to the world of computing: “I ended up in a refuge for 6 months with the kids, then living on a council estate in Brixton bringing them up on my own. I decided I needed to go to university. I did a degree in computing and then did a PhD in software engineering.”
Awardee Leslie Goldberg, of the University of Oxford, said she sees a continuing need for such awards: “Girls are treated differently to boys in school despite the best intention of teachers and parents, and there’s still a big perception in the world that maths and computing are male things and that women ought to be interested in something else. And so the purpose of the award is to raise the profile of women in the field.”
Host for the event and Suffrage Science scheme founder, Vivienne Parry, introduced one of the 5 computing winners, Dame Wendy Hall, as a “legend’ in computing. “She’s told us that gender imbalance must become everyone’s issue not a women’s issue, and I think we should wholeheartedly adopt that.”
Dame Wendy herself, of the University of Southampton, said she saw potential for the awards to make a tangible difference: ”I was very interested in the term Suffrage Science. When I looked that up on Wikipedia, suffrage is about being able to vote, and I thought actually yes, these sorts of awards are about giving us a voice, because if you don’t get to the top table then you’ don’t have that voice and so you can’t actually help the next generation come along.”
Maths awardee Gwyneth Stallard, of the Open University had high hopes too: “I really hope that we can somehow together, with these award winners, and passing it onto the next people, we can somehow inspire more women to discover just how beautiful maths is.” A sentiment shared by Sylvia Richardson, of the MRC biostatistics unit: “I really have spent quite a lot of time naturally trying to bring new people in – particularly women – and I think at this stage it gives me more of a focus and I’m going to think about that. It’s given me a structure for it to actually bring it forward.”
Jane Hutton, of the University of Warwick, implied that if she inspired other women it was by accident more than design. “You sometimes don’t actually intend to be a role model. You’re not actually going out thinking about it, you’re just getting on with your job and trying to do it well.”
For Ann Blandford, a computing awardee of University College London, the award “represents a couple of challenging paradoxes that I’m really looking forward to addressing. One of which it’s about the individual and I see myself as a team player. And for me that’s really important – it’s about how do we make sure teams are recognised – that’s men and women, diverse teams.”
Dame Celia Hoyles of University College London, who received the Communications Award, said she was “delighted and honoured to be amongst such amazing women.”
The Suffrage Science scheme enjoys long-standing support not only from Central Saint Martins-UAL and our hosts Imperial College London, but also from the Royal Society, L’Oreal and more recently from IBM, who kindly created the scheme’s new website www.suffragescience.org
Susan Watts is Head of Communications and Public Engagement at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC)*, which from I January 2017 is changing its name to MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences (LMS).