Ada Lovelace Day: celebrating women in STEM

Author: Samantha Payne, 10/11/16

ada_lovelace_portraitCan you name five historically influential women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and medicine)? What about three? I recently asked myself this question and found that I struggled to come up with names, despite the formal training I’ve received in science at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Yet there are many: from Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin to lesser-known Canadian women, such as Maud Leonora Menten, who co-devised the Michaelis-Menten equation – one of the most important models of enzyme kinetics. Although these women were just as dedicated as their male contemporaries, their valuable contributions to science were often overlooked during their lifetime.

Fortunately for modern female scientists, the barriers that historically prevented women from being able to independently conduct scientific research and receive due recognition have largely been removed. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of the progress women have made in STEM and to recognize and celebrate the work both current and historical female scientists have accomplished. For this reason, Ada Lovelace Day was created in 2009 as an international day to celebrate the achievements of women in the STEM fields.

Who was Ada Lovelace?

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, was born in 1815 in London England, the daughter of famous poet Lord Byron. Her mother, fed up with Lord Byron’s various extramarital affairs, separated from him soon after Ada’s birth and was determined that Ada would not grow up to be a writer like her father. She therefore concentrated her daughter’s education on mathematics and the sciences, and Ada soon became an extremely talented mathematician, a very unusual profession for a lady of that time.  Ironically, Ada also had a knack for writing and called her approach to mathematics “poetic science.”  Ada eventually worked under the guidance of Charles Babbage (the ‘father of computers’) and is now credited as the first female computer programmer, and writer of the first computer algorithm. Her seminal work was published in 1843 only under the initials AAL, and it was not until a century later that they were republished under her full name.

Although Ada Lovelace Day and similar events help to recognize and celebrate women in STEM, Statistics Canada reports that while women account for the majority of university graduates in non-STEM fields (66%), in STEM this number drops to 39% and is particularly low in engineering, mathematics and computer science. A Canadian study looking at gender differences in faculty of math, computer science and electrical/computer engineering in the largest 20 Canadian universities found that, in almost all of them, women accounted for less than 25 per cent of faculty. In addition, Maclean’s reports that the percentage of women actually working in the STEM fields has barely increased in almost 30 years, from 20 per cent in 1987 to 22 per cent in 2015.

This lack of proportional representation in more senior positons illustrates the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem; women enroll in these programs, but somewhere along the way do not pursue a career in these fields. There are a number of proposed reasons for this, such as unconscious bias during the hiring and promotion processes, as well as inflexible options for women wishing to start a family.

One contributing factor I found particularly compelling is that the scarcity of female professors and role models in these careers results in few mentors and a lack of encouragement for aspiring female students in STEM, something discussed in another blog about women in science. Many women currently in STEM may not see themselves as role models, but data have suggested that when students have a strong female influence they are more likely to remain in a STEM career. If women in STEM were more vocal about the challenges and rewards of their career path, it could encourage a greater number of women to stick with their own, an idea that has given me some food for thought.

If you would like a chance to learn more about the accomplishments of women in STEM, today (October 11th) from 5:30pm to 8pm, a celebration is taking place in honour of Ada Lovelace on the University of Toronto campus. This event promises to be an exciting evening of interactive networking with female leaders and trainees in STEM, featuring an inspiring keynote speaker and refreshments. All are welcome to join! Please register here.

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Samantha Payne

Samantha Payne

Samantha is a PhD student in the Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry department at the University of Toronto. She has previously investigated regeneration in a non-mammalian gecko model during an MSc program, and now currently combines stem cell biology and biomaterials to encapsulate and deliver therapeutic cells to the stroke-injured brain. Samantha became interested in scientific communication as a means to combine her love of writing and science to share exciting scientific discoveries to a broader community. Follow Samantha on Twitter @samantha_lpayne
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