You Can’t Be What You Can’t See – Representation Matters

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See – Representation Matters featured image

The scarcity of women in STEM is a subject I am frequently asked about. Currently, women make up only 14% of the science, tech, engineering and Maths (STEM) workforce in the UK. There are numerous reasons why, but two are particularly relevant:  bias (conscious & unconscious) and representation.   In a study by the OECD, they found that despite females having equal if not better results than their male counterparts, they lack the confidence to pursue careers in STEM matching parents expectations of their sons rather than daughters entering into the industry. Bias has a lot to do with the other main issue: representation and as Marian Wright Edelman put it, ” you can’t be what you can’t see”.  Parents, teachers and young girls themselves need to see more female role models in these industries.

So, in my first blog for Analytics Engines and on International Women’s Day, I thought I would provide some local examples of trailblazers that inspire me.

Gráinne O’Malley (1530 – c. 1603), Illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793. A random entry you might think, but in a time when women could only own property as widows and were considered their husband’s possession, Gráinne was a legendary pirate and Chieftan of the Ó Mháille clan despite having a brother.  She commanded a fleet of ships, led an army and had correspondence with and met Elizabeth I- as seen in a later imagining of the meeting in the picture.

Lilian Bland (1878 – 1971). In the early 1900s, Bland moved to Carnmoney and took up flying. She is one of the first women in the world to design, build, and fly an aircraft.  In the picture, she is flying the plane she built: the Mayfly.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Born in Lurgan in 1943, she attended a preparatory school that did not teach girls science as a rule. Following a protest by parents- including Jocelyn’s- she was permitted to study Science.  She studied Physics at the University of Glasgow and obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1969.  She is perhaps best known for her discovery of pulsars — rotating neutron stars that because they can only be seen when the beam of light is facing earth appear to ‘pulse’.  Her observation, made together with her supervisor, Antony Hewish, is considered to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. She was controversially not awarded the Nobel prize for this work but her advisor was… see also Rosalind Franklin who was also not awarded one for  work she was instrumental in (understanding of the molecular structures of  DNA).

What these women all have in common is their pursuit of excellence in their chosen field and particularly in STEM where they provide a heritage from which girls and women here can and do draw from.

Since returning home from California in 2015, I have seen a transformation in Technology in Northern Ireland where women are key players. Nell Watson, who was raised here, is a pioneer in AI and robotics and is shaping the world view on these emerging technologies. Closer to home, Rachel Gawley, who gained her PhD from Queens, is CTO and co-founder of her own extremely successful start up using gaming to address complex clinical issues.  She is also extremely supportive to anyone joining the industry.

In addition to the excellent tech at Analytics Engines, I was also impressed with the number of excellent women (and men) who work here who are coding, selling, managing and constructing our data legacy.

In terms of representation in Northern Ireland alone, the future is bright, but we need to do more to tell young women about the trailblazers who went before them and the women who are shaping today’s world. If we can’t be what we can’t see, we women in tech need to be much more visible to those who may come after us.  Happy International Women’s Day!  Go and talk to a young girl about STEM- show them what they can be!

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