From Ada Lovelace to Donna Strickland, women achieve despite the system

On Ada Lovelace Day we celebrate women in science and innovation. Happily, the present day offers a wealth of examples of women pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. Donna Strickland has become the third woman ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics for her work on chirped pulse amplification (despite being judged unworthy of a Wikipedia page earlier this year). Jocelyn Bell Burnell co-discovered radio pulsars. And Maggie Aderin-Pocock is developing our understanding of climate change on the Aeolus satellite project, all the while continuing her pioneering work in science communication for children.

Women’s contributions to science are fundamental, but their participation remains far from equal.

The outrageous performance of physicist Alessandro Strumia at a recent conference at CERN shows that there are still those who cling to the old rationales for excluding women from science and other prestigious realms of activity. We should not underestimate the extent to which these rationales continue to feed into cultural norms and assumptions, underpinning subject choices and careers advice at school, and translating into low levels of women’s participation in science at more advanced stages. Girls make up under 10% of those studying Computing at A-level and just a quarter of those taking Physics, even though girls and boys achieve in these subjects at similar rates at GCSE and A-level. It is then hardly surprising that women account for under 25% of those in the STEM workforce, and that only 7% of patents in the last thirty years were filed by women.

Over the course of our work on Breaking the Mould, we’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a wide range of innovators from different backgrounds.

Elin Haf Davies, founder/CEO of health technology enterprise aparito, grew up in rural North Wales, in the village of Parc. Her family encouraged her interest in science and aspirations of becoming a nurse. But her school advised her against taking science subjects, suggesting instead that she become a care worker and stay close to home.

Fortunately for the many people who’ve benefited from her work, Elin ignored this advice. She succeeded in winning a place at Great Ormond Street Hospital and moved 200 miles to London to train as a nurse. She went on to gain a PhD in Neuroscience, and now has under her belt five years as an Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Sustainable Medical Innovation. She has also spent seven years in the Wales Women’s Rugby A team, written three books, and crossed a hat-trick of oceans by oar and sail.

Elin’s exceptional achievements speak for themselves, but to get this far she had to buck the system. And her story isn’t unique.

Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL Institute of Education, points out that women who make it to the most senior levels in science and innovation have often had to defy the system at every turn. Research from the Archer-led ASPIRES project shows that girls who study post-16 physical sciences are exceptional, in their affinity with the ‘masculine’ and ‘hard’ identity of these subjects: they are highly competitive and recognise that they could have a competitive advantage in working in a male-dominated field; and they come from backgrounds of high science capital, being explicitly encouraged to engage and stick with science by influences at home and at school.

Our system should not rely on the capacity of exceptional girls and women like Elin to overcome the barriers that stand in their way.

Just as it is an unsatisfactory model of social mobility just to cherry-pick talent from disadvantaged communities, and assume that disparities generations in the making will somehow be corrected, it is not enough just to congratulate those women who make it through - and to assume that girls will get the message by seeing these examples. As Archer and team point out, our discourse on “equal opportunities” is confused: we believe at once that girls can do anything they want to, but also that they probably aren’t interested in or otherwise suited to science.

Role models are really important, but changes need to be made on a cultural level. For Archer and team, this means making the way that science is taught in the classroom more relevant to students’ own experiences, recognising the science that is already in their lives, and showing them a broader range of opportunities available in science than the traditional academic pathway. Some of those intimately involved in science at the highest levels around the world argue that changes in the way that we recognise and reward science could make things more equitable, and better reflect the nature of science as it is practised today. For example, the Nobel Prize “rule of three” restricts the number of scientists who can win a single award to three, even if, as is usually the case, more people directly collaborated on the winning project. This perpetuates the idea of scientific research as an endeavour carried out by an individual genius rather than the collaborative effort it really is.

Let’s not forget what education can do! A call to action from Joysy John, Director of Education at Nesta

Firstly, by making teachers and learners aware of this gender stereotyping we can help them to challenge the assumptions. Secondly, by ending the bias against multi-disciplinary education in our education system – turning STEM into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) – we can help more women seek opportunities in innovation. Finally, by changing the way science is taught and linking it with real life problems, we can inspire more girls to explore a career in science and technology.

As a female computer scientist and entrepreneur, I am passionate about building the right skills, attitudes and knowledge to help more female scientists, engineers and digital creators thrive in the future. Personally, I think that giving students meaningful work experience and female mentors will make a huge difference in giving women the motivation and perseverance to choose careers in innovation. It is not enough to build knowledge and skills, but women need to have the confidence, resilience and support to choose a career path that may have many barriers within it.

We’ve been compiling a database of interventions that aim to encourage innovative skills, attitudes and activities in children and young people. We’ve found a huge range of approaches: creative coding and maker clubs; festivals, fairs and fun palaces; invention challenge prizes and awards. Our upcoming event on 5 November will convene policymakers, researchers and practitioners to identify ways of bringing these approaches together and drawing out key lessons and evidence in a more concerted effort to inspire the next generation and address innovation’s diversity problem.

One size does not fit all in education, nor do scientists and innovators all fit the same mould. Government must work with business, academia and civil society to increase the science capital of women and create pathways, progression and partnerships for change. By providing opportunities, building confidence and developing a broader and more multidisciplinary education system, we can break the mould for what a scientist or engineer looks like in the future. Government should fund more longitudinal research to understand drivers of innovation and make better use of destinations data from the Department for Education. There needs to be a shift away from focusing on how to convince more women to take subjects like physics and computing, and instead look at what drivers throughout society might be putting them off.


Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Data Justice Senior Researcher, Data Analytics Practice

Juliet was a senior researcher in the Inclusive Impact unit within Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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Joysy John

Joysy John

Joysy John

Director of Education

Joysy was the Director of Education and led Nesta's work in education across innovation programmes, research and investment.

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