Celebrating Women in STEM – Ada Lovelace Day

Published on 5 October 2020

Over the past few decades, there has been huge advancements for women in areas such as medicine, business and law. Yet, when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the picture is less promising.

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Yes, there are Women working in STEM who have changed the world with their innovative accomplishments, paving the way for entire generations to follow in their footsteps.

But, how many can you name?

As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, we put the spotlight on our own female role models, from our students and staff to industry experts and alumni.

Role Models for Women in STEM

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and a role model to so many women in STEM. She is often referred to as the first computer programmer after designing a program for her Charles Babbage credited with inventing the first mechanical computer.

A study, commissioned by CWJobs in 2019, showed that role models are more important for women than men, 60% of women working in STEM say that they have been inspired by a role model compared to 46% of men.

Although females view role models of particular importance, most of the females working in STEM we spoke to thought role models of any gender create a balanced outlook.

“If you had asked me that 20 years ago, I would have said role models are not hugely important for females. I lived in my own bubble where I never really acknowledged any barriers. But I was lucky, I had plenty of influencers in my young life who made me believe I could do whatever I chose,” said Frances Ratcliffe, Lead Consultant Bridges & Structures, Fife Council.

“However, in my role as a STEM Ambassador, I have been shocked by some attitudes still exist in relation to girls particularly within engineering, amongst both parents and teachers, and even amongst young people themselves. So yes, I think role models are important to show girls they can choose whatever career they want.” 

“I am very fortunate to have had role models throughout my career both male and female. People, who have helped me evaluate things and pointed me in the correct direction,” said Dr Karen Petrie,

“My longest standing mentor is definitely Professor Ursula Martin. Ursula, taught me as an undergraduate and has helped me in my career ever since. She is someone I admire very much, with a career path to inspire to.”

Caitlin Moran who graduated from the University of Dundee with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Renewables in 2019 agreed.

“I think for some people having role models is important as it gives them something to aspire to. I feel that it shouldn’t matter who the role model is and should be focused on what they’ve done to contribute to their particular field.”

Confidence is Key

Overall, the lack of women in STEM means young girls, students, and graduates do not have many role models that can inspire them to opt for STEM jobs. Stereotypes and biases also shape public opinion on what women in STEM should be or look like.

“As women, we need to develop a little bit more confidence in our own abilities. The women working in STEM that I have had the privilege to work with, do work very hard. Yet we tend to harbour feelings of self-doubt, even imposter syndrome. We're held back by the terminology that's used around us,” said Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, Director of Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science (LRCFS).

Lynn Masterton, Technical Director at AECOM agrees, “Quite often it can be a lack of confidence that prevents women from achieving the best they possibly can in their career. However, with good role models these perceptions can change and career progression can then be considered possible and within reach.”

“I am continually inspired by many of the women that I work with day to day. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to work along some successful and talented female engineers, geologists and scientists.”

Tackling Social Bias

Although, the challenge of growing and maintaining confidence for women in STEM is particularly challenging in a traditionally male-dominated discipline, social bias also has also an effect why women are less prominent in STEM roles.

“As someone with a disability and doing well in maths (eventually!), I was advised to study for a BSc in Computer Science. However, I was turned down for job after job on graduation as ‘she would frighten other employees’”, said Professor Annalu Waller, Discipline Lead for Computing at the University of Dundee.

“Whenever someone said I couldn’t do something, my mother and father would encourage and enable me to follow my dreams.”

“I tend to doubt my knowledge, particularly when it is challenged or questioned, and this lack of confidence in my physics skills was hard to overcome,” said Lara Janiurek, fourth year Physics student.

“However, my confidence has soared over my time at university, as it has allowed me to quantitatively see my physics skills progressing and developing. The many opportunities to present my knowledge and scientific findings in class through formal presentations and speaking to my lecturers gave me the chance to develop my skills of communicating in an eloquent and concise manner, and gives me more confidence to reach out to larger audiences in the future.”

Maintaining an interest in STEM

Girls are interested in STEM but somewhere along the way, their interest wanes. The contrast between male and female participation in STEM subjects beyond GCSE is stark – according to WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) only 33% of girls who take maths and science GCSEs programme progress into any form of Level 3 core STEM qualification.

“When we hold science events for young people, the girls under ten years of age appear to be fascinated with scientific subjects, but this enthusiasm sometimes seems to be lost in the older teens, who sometimes sadly can be heard saying 'I can't do science',” said Professor Tracey Wilkinson, Principal Anatomist, Cox Chair of Anatomy and Director, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification.

“We would like to change this perception and showcasing some excellent female role models should help!”

Skye Kirwan, a third year Computing Science student said, “Once I began to code and found out there was so much more to discover and build, I felt like I would regret taking any other path. It was daunting at first, but I was able to adapt well and gain some confidence!

“If it’s what you want, then you should go for it. There is so much support out there if you need it. Also, don't worry about being in male-dominated environments, as in those same spaces you will meet like-minded girls who have also decided to go for it!”

“When I was younger, I was really interested in mummies! Ancient Egyptian mummies and culture amazed me, then I became even more interested in modern mummies from all around the world such as Ötzi and the famous bog bodies of Ireland – pretty unusual for a nine year-old girl! I have not had any comments about my ‘weird’ interests from family, I’m sure believed that this ‘phase’ will eventually pass!” said Eszter Somjai, a third year Forensic Anthropology student.

Changing the tide

As the data shows, women perform equal to men when it comes to STEM, but they are not as well represented in the industry.

If we can implement the changes necessary to accommodate and empower women, provide more support and a more positive environment, we could see more women in STEM in schools, universities and in the workplace, and begin to bridge the gap.

Women only make up 24% of the core-STEM workforce (WISE 2019) – let’s change it.

“My advice is to follow your dreams. Don’t be deterred by challenges. Take advice but listen to your inner voice. Be passionate and believe in yourself - you can be whatever your potential leads you to be”

Professor Annalu Waller