Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day 2010

This post is my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day, which is, as their homepage says,

an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines, whatever they do.
As you may know, Ada Lovelace was, among other things, Byron's daughter; more importantly, she was a mathematician, and worked with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, for which she wrote an algorithm which has earned her the label of 'first computer programmer'.

Anyway, the point of my participation in this is that as many of you know I am rather obsessed with the gender imbalance in the sciences and particularly in computer science. I get even more frustrated when I go to talks and forums (fora?) on the topic, and all we seem to get is restating of the problem, followed by wailing and gnashing of teeth, abstract wishes for improvement, and not a shred of a concrete suggestion of how this could occur apart from "we need better childcare!" or "we need to fight stereotypes!".

As it happens, my own small number of years spent fretting over this problem have not brought me any more enlightenment, so it is perhaps hypocritical to complain about others' lack of solutions. And the point of this day, and this blog post, is to celebrate rather than whinge. In that spirit, then, I want to note that I do personally know plenty of successful women in my field who not only do well in their careers, but also manage to have a family, know what's going on in the world, and generally be sociable and interesting and fun human beings. It is a bit unseemly to parade them about like freak-show exhibits, but if that's what we have to do for a bit longer to prove to younger girls that it can be done, then so be it (cf. also my being summoned by my ex-department to go talk to A-level students and encourage the girls in the audience that Computer Science was a good choice - sadly there were no girls there...).

More pertinently, I think the most valuable aspect of having these various generations of women who've either been there, done that, or are currently facing the same problems and dilemmas as ourselves, is, of course, being able to discuss the things that worry us. And so I finally get round to introducing the woman I have chosen to celebrate, FemaleScienceProfessor of the eponymous blog. From her 'About Me' blurb:
I am a full professor in a physical sciences field at a large research university. I am married and have a young child. I have the greatest job in the world, but this will not stop me from noting some of the more puzzling and stressful aspects of my career as a Female Science Professor.
FSP blogs about issues big and small that arise in her daily interactions with academia and scientific research - dealing with applications, writing reference letters, teaching classes, thinking about her daughter's schooling, negotiating grants and journal articles, sitting in meetings...I really value her insights (of course, or I wouldn't be reading her blog), but even more I value the little community that has sprung up around the blog, people who comment more or less regularly and share their own experiences of being researchers, scientists, students, women, postdocs, academics. There are people at all stages of their research career, and their personal lives, from different countries (though it is still a bit US-heavy), different disciplines.

I'm not sure I have ever taken practical advice or followed actual suggestions from anything that appeared on the blog, but I definitely feel a strong sense of community with others there - knowing that there are other people who are dealing with the tension between going where the job is and going where the other half is, with balancing the demands of family life and research, with figuring out how to 'do' grants and covering letters and CVs and conferences and and and...Sometimes to keep going we don't need advice on how to do something, we just need to know that we're not freaks and there are other who have felt or feel the same way - that the problems and challenges don't stem from our incompetence, but are part of the process. Misery loves company and all that.

FSP deserves to be celebrated today for encouraging the women she encounters, both in real life and via the blog, to keep at it and keep fighting bias and prejudice, and for having created such a pleasant community around her blog, giving us a place to keep the conversation going (and it is worth noting that she usually also takes the time to engage with the comments).

I was going to end this post by saying 'Long may it continue!', but actually, that is wrong: may it soon become obsolete, proving that the gender imbalance is no more.

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