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?

The Tyranny of Twitter

20 01 2010

Pretty much my first ever blog was entitle Twitter Ye Not.  At that time I was unpersuaded that I needed to know what everyone in the world had for breakfast or where they were off to for lunch.

In the months that have passed I have been forced to reconsider my stance as having a presence on social media sites such as twitter and facebook is, I am assured by people who are paid to know these things, essential to the growth of my business.

So I now have a twitter acoount, which I am probably contractually obliged to ask you to follow at http://www.twitter.com/kebirch, and have been shocked/amazed/horrified to discover how enslaving it is. There is a constant, nagging need to check for tweets. It is becoming increasingly difficult to control the urge to check to see if anything has changed since I last looked.  And it is not just me.  My bedroom is below that of my son and most nights I drift off to sleep to the electronic bleep of new messages arriving into his laptop from MSN.

And with social media being used more and more as a tool to promote businesses, the boundaries between work and home are becoming increasingly blurred. It was bad enough in the days when the pager made it possible to be called into work at the weekend but now the mobile phone means many of us are on call 24/7 and the laptop means that our work is always with us.

Technology, as presented in the old BBC programme Tomorrow’s World, was going to make our lives better. But has it?

Certainly it is hard to argue against labour saving devices such as the automatic washing machine over the washtub and mangle but are we endangering the quality of life by ceding so much control of our lives to technology.  Well, people today experience more depression than previous generations and there is a wealth of papers to suggest that people who place value on material goals are unhappier than those that don’t and that lack of a clear division between our home and work environments damage our personal relationships.

Here’s a personal observation. When I was a youngster I would head off in the morning and play out all day, just round and about with friends, maybe coming home for lunch, maybe not. As long as we were home before it got dark my mum didn’t worry. It’s not that she didn’t care but knowing that we were out playing, that we would stay close-ish to home, were pretty sensible and that we’d come home when we were hungry, was enough information. My son, in common with the vast majority of teenagers,  has a mobile phone and we can keep in touch whenever he is away from the house. This should make us modern mums feel more  secure about the safety of our children, knowing that they can get in touch if there is a problem. In fact it has made most of us feel less secure as because they can keep in touch we think that they should and we feel compelled to check for messages all of the time. We feel less secure as we have less control.

It is my belief that, if we are going to take control of our lives we need to take control of the technology we need to think more clinically about what we need to know.

We are available via laptop, phone and via TV 24/7. Most of us will not be able to change that basic situation but it is essential for our mental health that we become better at responding to the valuable and dismissing the useless rather than reacting to each stimulus that the technology sends us as if everything had equal merit.

While I have been writing this I have received 5 new e-mails and 2 linkedin messages. There were 54 additions to my facebook live feed and 78 tweets.

It is up to me what I do with all that information.