Women in Innovation and Technology

8 12 2010

While I was growing up I wanted to be a scientist, swimming with dolphions with Jaques Cousteau or tramping through jungles with David Attenborough. My heroes were the great men of science and I read and re-read a dusty old tome of my dad’s that described the life and works of these giants, like Faraday, Boyle and Mendeleev.  I even skethched a mural of portraits taken from the etched plates in the book which I titled, somewhat pretentiously but accurately “Our Fathers”.

But where were the women?

Those of you who are my age will no doubt remember those black and white storyboards that were part of Blue Peter, narrated by Valerie Singleton and telling, in a way that made even the most exciting story uninteresting, the stories of great deeds and discoveries.

The only women I remember were Madame Curie, endlessly stirring vats of pitchblend, Florence Nightingale and that bloody lamp, the heroic Grace Darling and the pathetic and doomed Ann Frank.

So I was heartened to hear an edition of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg which looked at the role of women in science in the Age of Enlightenment which goes some way to answering the question, “Where were the Women?”

While it is true that the Age was not hugely enlightened about the education of women;

“The education of women should always be relative to that of men.  To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable…  Even if she possessed real abilities, it would only debase her to display them”, J.J. Rousseau, 1762;

and that women were  excluded from scientific societies, universities and learned professions, the fact that science became a more acceptable way in which a gentleman could earn his living and that some areas of research were conducted in the domestic environment allowed a few women to make their mark.

Since most research was conducted in the home women became involved firstly as assistants to fathers, brothers and husbands, and with intellectual discussions also taking place in stately homes and salons women gained exposure to scientific discourse in their role as hostess.

Take Veuve Cliquot. François Clicquot died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of a company. Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance the firm established their wines in royal courts throughout Europe.

When Lady Mary Montagu was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox and had her son inoculated.  On her return home she had her daughter inoculated and went on to promote the practice throughout the UK. Her actions follow the perfect template for scientific practice in the enlightenment;  Observe – Test – Scale Up – Publicize.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze is most commonly known as Madame Lavoisier, wife of Antoine Lavoisier the famous French chemist but her contribution extended far beyond being simply his laboratory assistant.  She was an acommplished translater of scientific papers and not only translated the work of Newton but also tested his theories and converted the complex mathematical equations into simpler formulae and understandable prose. While her contribution to his work was not acknowledged in Lavoisiers papers contemporary accounts do attest to her contribution and she continued to run the salon long after his death in the French Revolution.

The burgeoning field of astronomy afforded the perfect oportunity for women to contribute to scientific enquiry. Telescopes were largely housed in the homes of wealthy gentleman and often women were involved in making the masses of observations and measurements required or confirming the recordings of the men. Indeed it could be suggested that Elizabeth Hevelius, then only sixteen years old married the fifty two year old astronomer Johannes Hevelius maily as it allowed her to pursue her own interest in astronomy! Following his death, she completed and published Prodromus astronomiae, their jointly compiled catalogue of 1,564 stars and their positions, an achievemnt that earned her the title “mother of the moon charts.”

Caroline Herschel was another astronomer, sister to Sir William Herschel. Caroline had wanted to be an opera singer but was forced to support her brother as his workload increased and they worked together throughout his career.  Her most significant individual contribution to astronomy was  as the first woman to identify a comet. In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. Again Caroline’s work extended beyond the death of her brother,  as she continued to verify and confirm William’s findings and producing a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996!

So women were there providing assistance, yes, but performing acts of innovation and discovery in their own right too! It is not just that “behind every great man there is a great woman”.

While the marginalisation of these women and their accomplishments might be understandable in the society of 18th Century Europe it couldn’t still be the case now, could it?

Consider this then; we’ve all heard about Watson and Crick, heroes of mine as I had ambitions to be a genetisist at one stage in my university career but what of the long-overlooked contribution of the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure? I was at university before I became aware of her work as it is largely overlooked in school text books.

So we all need to work to laud female innovators and technologists. There are plenty about!

There are more women millionaires under the age of 44 than there are men. If you’re reading this, how about putting some of that monen into supporting young innovators?


19 08 2010

Tony Blair put education at the forefront of his first election campaign. While he now shuffles around the world in search of his legacy it was education that was his first hope for booking his place in history.

It wasn’t just about raising standards in education. His strategy had a focus on entrepreneurship at it’s core. Those early, cringe-worthy Brit-Pop meetings at Number 10 were not only so Tony could meet his heroes. The aim was to encourage government to connect with youth culture and through it encourage a more enterprising generation. The big idea was to inject the spirit of enterprise into a tired, old schools sector.

So how did innovation and enterprise come to be forgotten and the focus to narrow even further on exam results and school league tables?

In my view the error came right at the start when the emphasis was put on pupils rather than teachers.

Programmes were developed to encourage pupil entrepreneurship. These, supported by the huge expansion in personal access to information driven by the growth of the internet in the 90’s and into the 21st century, allowed pupils to be put at the centre of their learning experience. This is perfectly right and proper. In theory.

But while there is so little room for enterprise within the teaching profession – being solely driven by academic achievement and league tables and commonly having no work/life experience beyond the education system – enterprise is squeezed out of the curriculum. How many times have we heard that teachers train children to pass exams rather than educating them?

The focus on academic achievement has meant that vocational training has been sidelined by successive governments. After much debate 14-19 years diplomas have been introduced in subjects such as construction and media but the initial intention of offering vocational study options in mainstream subjects such as English and modern languages has been shelved. This has meant that vocational courses are still seen as the poor relation to academic study.

Free schools, much vaunted by Michael Gove, may improve the situation by giving schools more control over the curriculum. However, looking at the experience with the current free schools, the city academies, they have been accused of doing away with ‘harder‘ academic subjects to focus on ‘softer‘ vocational options to improve the performance and position on school league tables.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

While we have this differential thinking that equates academic to difficult and vocational to easy how will we ever be able to give equal value to practical study and to properly introduce courses such as enterprise and entrepreneurship into our schools.

In my own recent experience I contacted the Determined to Succeed Team here in Scotland. This is a great programme and driven by talented and committed individuals. The programme, however, is delivered via the local education bodies. I was able to offer my own skills, and those of hundreds of entrepreneurs who are involved in the3rdi magazine, free of charge, to support enterprise and work experience initiatives within schools.

To my huge disappointment, but not surprise as my own son has recently left the education system in Scotland, not one school in Perth and Kinross, not one – primary or secondary, thought that they could benefit from this opportunity. They were all too busy, focussed solely on year tests and final examination results. All too blinkered. My own son had not a single class on enterprise in his whole secondary education. Fortunately he has lots of role models outside the classroom but most kids aren’t that lucky and rely entirely on schools for the totality of their education, academic or otherwise.

We are now working with Glasgow schools and so maybe all is not doom and gloom.

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Mumpreneurs – new thing or just what we’ve always done?

22 06 2010

The July issue of the3rdi magazine will focus on working from home and in advance of that we have posted to find out about different peoples experiences and opinions.

As part of this process, and to stimulate debate, I thought that I should wade into the area of mumpreneurs. Well, when I say wade in I really mean jump in with both feet.

Firstly, I dislike the word. I am an entrepreneur. Really. I am. I have started at least 5 businesses in different business areas, using different skills and different technologies.  This qualifies me to use the term entrepreneur. And I am a mum. These are separate and unrelated parts of my life. The two do not fuse. I am a mum and I am an entrepreneur.

The prefix mum, it seems to me, has been deliberately chosen to confer some sort of protective shield around the word and hence the person. Everyone loves mums, like we all love apple pie, don’t we. It’s a given. And woebetide anyone who critises mums.  How many times have you heard the question asked, “Do you have kids?” and if the answer is “no” the respondent is given a sympathetic look and told, “You’ll understand when you have kids of your own.” It’s as if having a child, as long as you are not one of those demonised single-parents on sink estates, confers a cloak of invincibility. This is plainly nonsense.

For me the act of childbearing is a natural act unique to my gender due entirely to an aspect of physiology. Having a child may have altered my perspective on what was important in life but it did not change my understanding of business, the universe and everything and did not raise my intellect by a single IQ point. In other words being a mum had no affect on my entrepreneurial abilities.

As women we are often reluctant to criticise other women, especially mums and the mumpreneur seems particularly immune from critisism. I’m going to buck the trend.

Let’s accept that those that call themselves mumpreneurs are, in fact, mums. Many display their kids on their websites, blogs, books and across social media platforms so I’ll accept that the mum part is true. But are they also entrepreneurs? In the main I think not.

There is a huge difference between entrepreneurship and enterprise.

Lots of women decide that they are unwilling or unable to follow a career in full-time, paid employment once they have had a child. This is completely understandable as the demands placed on home, family and a full-time career can be intolerable. It is not surprising, however, that the previously successful and energetic woman, finding herself at home 24/7, should seek to find something to occupy them beyond changing nappies and watching ceebeebies. So many mums start a home-based business.

But here’s the thing. This is nothing new! This is home-working. Women have done this for generations. They have taken in washing, done ironing, dress making, knitting, book-keeping, writing kids books from home for decades. They use the skills that they had at work to make money from home. This is not entrepreneurship – this is enterprise.

My own mother started a number of very successful playgroups when my brothers were small. She took what she knew, looking after kids, and turned it into a home-based business. She would not consider herself to be entrepreneurial and neither would I. She was extraordinarily enterprising –  and successful.

Modern stay at home mums have the benefit of new technology to access larger markets for their enterprise but the principle is the same. If you write a book about bring up baby you are an author not an entrepreneur. To get that book reviewed on Womans Hour is enterprising, not entrepreneurial.

For me an entrepreneur sees new market opportunities and develops and grows businesses and business skills to exploit those opportunities. An enterprising individual builds a single business on the skills they already have. For example, someone who has worked in the HR department of a large corporate and goes on to run a small HR company from home while bringing up kids is enterprising not entrepreneurial.

Now I should say that I am not being derogatory about enterprise. Far, far from it. Enterprise is hugely important and I value enterprise just as much as entrepreneurship. Enterprise can find a new angle, a new niche a new way of working and build strong businesses. Entrepreneurship requires a different skill set and while it may have bigger rewards there are often larger risks. Mums are often unwilling to take these risks, which is why they focus, quite properly, on enterprise.

I know mumenterpriser isn’t as catchy as mumpreneur but it is nearer to the truth. The use of entrepreneur when we mean enterprise devalues both.