Spotlight on women scientists on Ada Lovelace Day

14 October 2013

Museum celebrates women scientists with a live event and a Wikipedia Editathon to mark the day named after the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace.

Victorian mathematician Ada Lovelace is celebrated on October 15 in events around the world. She has become a figurehead for women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 

Ada Lovelace Day, launched in 2009, has become renowned for sharing inspirational stories about women in science.

Lovelace's father was the poet Lord Byron. Her mother took her away from him when she was a month old and she never saw her father again. 

She was encouraged to study maths by her mother to keep her away from poetry and literature, which her mother believed encouraged Byron's madness.

Inspiring women in science

Lovelace studied maths at the University of London, where she worked with the inventor Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, an early model for a computer. In 1842, she wrote an algorithm for the engine, for which she is credited as being the first computer programmer.

The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from a study by psychologist Penelope Lockwood who found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models.

Despite evidence that girls do well in maths and science subjects at school and go on to study them at university, fewer women than men then get jobs in the fields of engineering and maths in particular. 

Women make up only 7 per cent of Royal Society fellows, a body for the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists in the UK. Just 6 per cent of professional engineers are women, the lowest proportion in Europe. And 13 per cent of engineering undergraduates are female.

Even in biology, often considered a more female-friendly science, high-quality science by female academics is underrepresented, according to scientists at the University of Sheffield. 

One reason put forward is that, the most critical time of a scientist's career - when it's vital to be communicating findings and building networks with other scientists - tends to come at the age when women are most likely to be pregnant or have young children. 

Lower exposure and fewer networking opportunities are then costly to their careers. Fewer women in top positions then mean fewer female role models for students who aspire to be scientists. 

Women of the Museum

As part of the celebrations, the Museum is hosting a Nature Live event, Pioneering Women of Natural History, recounting the adventures of legendary Museum employees Dorothea Bate and Evelyn Cheesman. The event will be streamed live online.

Pioneering Women of Natural History

Bate was the first woman employed as a scientist at the Museum in 1898, where she worked for the next 50 years, researching ornithology, palaeontology, geology and anatomy. 

Cheesman was unable to become a vet because of restrictions on women's education. Instead, she studied entomology (insects) and spent 12 years travelling the world on remote expeditions where she collected more than 70,000 specimens.

Museum anthropologist Brenna Hassett, who specialises in human teeth, said that although there weren't many Victorian women working in science, women in natural history did not exist in isolation.

‘We imagine Victorian science as a bunch of old white men, but there was a network of women working in the field,’ said Hassett. ‘Sometimes these women would all come together and you’d have entire female teams excavating together.’

Emma Bernard in the field

Palaeobiologist Emma Bernard, who tweets under the name Palaeo Barbie, said girls don't have to be boyish to get ahead in science.

Raising the profile

Hassett, along with Museum mammal researcher Victoria Herridge, created the blog TrowelBlazers to highlight the pioneering work of women in archaeology, palaeontology and geology, and to challenge preconceptions that these fields are male dominated.

‘You see photographs from a hundred years ago of a group of men and right in the middle will be one little woman. I wanted to know, "What’s her story?"', Hassett said.

Alongside the Nature Live event, Hassett and Herridge have organised a Wikipedia Editathon at the Museum on 19 October. This is part of a worldwide movement to encourage people to add and update the Wikipedia entries for women scientists past and present.

‘We want to add more about their life and achievements, and to make sure their page doesn’t just say who they were married to,’ said Hassett.

Tweet @NatureLive during the Pioneering Women of Natural History event to join the conversation.