Ada Lovelace day. Ashamed to miss the first round, I vowed to make the pledge on the second.
It’s not easy picking a single woman to illustrate the fine work of women in tech. So I have chosen a theme and by no means will this be conclusive. I guess it is more of an observation.
I’d like to discuss two women who have played roles in the interests in my life. One has always been a scientific light to me. The other, well, she’s kinda new to the field and has already created controversy.
Let’s go back to the eighties. Yeah, sorry about that, but I can’t change the time. As a cub, I had a microscope, I had a truck and for a long time I had no Barbie. But my friends did. I was somewhat envious for a long time, the doll that every girl at school seemed to own.
Time came around when I was given a hand me down. Barbie – at the frizzed hair part of her life. She came with a kind of three-storey apartment with a pulley system lift. You can guess what happened – the doll of strange proportions and platinum hair was cast aside and the repeated destruction and construction of her home was the main event. Cardboard and plastic and string. I loved building that house. Before long, I moved on to Lego. But that’s another story.
Not too scientific or even technical – yet.
Scroll forward a few years. A different country and another school. An average flat chested brunette, bookish and nervous and keen on drawing and science. Curious and a little bit shy with people. I thought that a slightly dull life of research and being dowdy lay ahead. High school was a slightly daunting proposition, socially speaking.
Watching TV when it’s nearly time for bed, there’s something on like Tomorrow’s World or something similar that would have rocked my world then – and now.
A woman arrived on the screen. Tall and blonde and pretty and smarter than any woman I had watched before. She’s a neuroscientist. (Wow, thinks little me – must look that up) It was Susan Greenfield. Now Lady Greenfield to use her full title.
I was rapt. Just who was this woman who blew away all of my expectations for academia and knowledge? The long legs, the long blonde hair. Familiar…but not familiar among the women I had been reading about or learning from.
It was a revelation and a celebration for me. I could still dress up and still be interested in and work with technology. The important thing about the way Susan Greenfield presents herself is that she is still taken seriously.
Currently she has seen coverage in the press about her position as the former director of the Royal Institution. The Institution’s statement says that her position no longer exists.
“The Trustees of the Royal Institution of Great Britain have completed the first stage of a governance review and as a consequence have concluded, that the requirement for the functions of the role of Director as currently defined has ceased to exist. We are therefore sad to announce that Baroness Susan Greenfield left the Ri on 08/01/2010.”
So, now there will be a review. The media has been circling and the possibility of a tribunal has been mooted with themes of sexual discrimination. Any action would have to be taken in April 2010 and meetings are set to take place before then. So this is far from a conclusion. But it does raise some questions.
I don’t think these decisions are made with looks in mind. But, it is undeniable that Lady Greenfield is the first woman director in the role. I do query why that position if any would ‘cease to exist’ and wonder if this would happen if a different person were doing that job.
What it does still, for me, is indicate that women are proven to be outstanding in their field. No matter how this case turns out and whether or not Lady Greenfield returns to her position, the fact of the matter is that she was there and lead that institution. She is a pioneer by taking that role and making it her own.
The general hoopla surrounding this situation also draws attention to her career. Scientist, writer and broadcaster, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology, Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, a specialist in the physiology of the brain and researcher who brings attention to Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
All of this and the general politics of being a woman today. She was born in 1950, though doesn’t look it. She’s media savvy, an entertaining speaker and a person who highlights science in ways that is relevant to the general population. I find it admirable.
Recently I was sitting behind Lady Greenfield at a web event. I was maybe not in total agreement with her views, but inspired none the less. I noted her intellect and also that she had that season’s Valentino handbag. It made me smile. I realised that she would make science more appealing to more young women who have different priorities to the ones I had at high school. Maybe even influence them to work in a similar field.
So, why was I prattling on about Barbie again?
Oh yeah. The Mattel Barbie hype machine has a section where the public can vote on the career of the oddly proportioned pop culture icon. This year one of the options was for Barbara Millicent Roberts to try her hand at being a computer engineer. I voted. I wanted her to do that job. She has had such a wild and varied career already – she has a pilot’s licence as well as having been a flight attendant, she’s been an astronaut, a doctor and allegedly there has been a Nascar Barbie (fill in your own comment at the end).
But in some ways she still failed to represent the women around me, the women working in technology, the everyday wonders that I laugh and drink coffee with. I voted. I voted for Barbie to be a computer engineer.
Turns out a heck of a lot of people voted for Barbie to be an engineer too as she has now taken up that role as the 2010 Popular Vote. (the Girls Vote winner was News Anchor).
So are we happy now?
Possibly not, maybe so. The decision divided a blogging audience. The presentation of this computer engineer did not seem so realistic. Why was she carrying a pink laptop with giant rows of binary on the display? Why was she wearing glasses? Why were they pink??
Therein lies a problem based around stereotype and expectation. Many coding women I know wear glasses. I don’t know why. I suspect it follows a fashion, they could wear lenses too. Barbie’s T-shirt has binary in the design – lauded as a cliché by some – but excuse me if my web mistress friends don’t also adorn themselves with attractive fitting apparel with LOL cats or other nerdy jokes on them.
So is it really the presentation?
I admit I didn’t feel as though Barbie represented me as a woman with an interest in tech. The platinum version never did. I wasn’t that girl and I’m not that woman. But what she can do – is make technology appealing to girls at a very young age.
This is so important. There are not enough women in science and technology, it is still not the first choice for some very ancient reasons. So if this doll, with its cliches and curves can help to change that. Then maybe I can agree with it on some level. Then again – maybe I would like to see Barbie’s past theses and her doctorate too.
To set the record straight. I don’t think that Lady Greenfield looks like Barbie. What both of these women currently represent to me is a change. A slow change and a hard fought one. Ada Lovelace may have been in the running early on, but there are many women who can bring different, maybe sometimes even better, values and choices to science and technology. The only way to encourage this is to provide as many varied and wonderful examples of women already working in this territory, whether they look like my scary biology teacher with her unshaven armpits or whether they have surgery to look like Barbie. They are important for the work that they do and the inspiration they can bring.
I’m still never going blonde again though…
P.S. Something that made me smile about girls and tech – “She makes me wanna update, to be a better man..”