What Ada Lovelace’s story reminds us about STEM, talent and belonging

Posted on 10 Oct 2023 by The Manufacturer

Remembering Ada Lovelace’s life and work is bittersweet. She was a trailblazing visionary, able to articulate the computational process 100 years before the first analytical machine was developed.

She was also alive in the 19th century, when women were not considered full citizens, could not access university and could not vote in parliamentary elections. Ada was able to pursue her passion in part due to her privilege. She had a supportive and wealthy family who arranged private tuition and introductions to leading academics.

I can’t, however, think of Ada without thinking of all the other women alive at that time with extraordinary potential insights, who lacked an environment that would enable them to realise their potential.

There has been staggering progress from those days to the current STEM sector, where women can have successful and impactful careers. Unlike Ada, women can now get recognised for their achievements within their own lifetime. As a teenager, I didn’t feel excluded from taking a technical route at any stage, I loved Design & Technology at school and sailed through Civil Engineering at university. I have had several job roles and felt supported and encouraged by my line managers and peers in my career.

Yet, as a women, I have always been in a minority, and participation of women in engineering remains low. I’ve never had a female line manager (out of nine and counting), and I have always been conscious that I defy people’s expectations of an engineering academic. As I progress in my career, I see fewer people at my level from a variety of other minoritised groups. This particularly applies to those who face intersectional injustices, for instance, individuals who are both black and female, or disabled and queer.

The more facets of your identity that sit outside of the archetypes most strongly associated with your career, the greater the quantity of both overt and subtle ways there are that code as not belonging. People who identify as middle-class, straight, able-bodied, white and male still dominate the engineering sector in greater proportions than in the general population. For me, I still often see a look of surprise on the faces of senior leaders when they first meet me.

In previous organisations, I have seen women academics disproportionately loaded with ‘care-associated’ roles such as feedback-intensive skills teaching. I’ve heard conversations between (usually male) leaders about other women labelled as ‘difficult’  just for having the confidence to argue their point.

Or colleagues with English as a second language overlooked for leadership development opportunities. I never have to deal with the tiring injustices that my Black British students face of having to assert that they are not international students or getting stopped by police for no clear reason.

So while we now benefit from having more inclusively accessible career paths than are documented at any other time in history, we should not take this progress for granted and we should not ignore that there is further to go. We also need to realise that our hard-won rights can also be lost. Society is seeing renewed debate about women’s rights, trans rights and fraught discussions regarding nationalism vs globalism, echoing xenophobic and racist themes that many of us had hoped were consigned to the past.

The supportive context of Ada Lovelace’s achievements is a reminder that embedding equality, diversity and inclusion is a continual societal process that none of us can opt out from. We can choose to reinforce the status quo through our inaction or subvert it through active effort. We can all use our power to oppress or uplift people in different ways, based on who we listen to, who we ignore, and the voices we amplify.

It takes more than just personal resilience to make a home within a career that has a history of exclusion. Those of us who have seniority especially need to stop reproducing the habits that generate that exclusion, whether that means calling out inappropriate banter, bringing someone to the table whose voice does not usually get heard, or educating ourselves about the lived experiences of others and reflecting on the implications for our own lives.

At NMITE, we have built our engineering degree differently and we start this conversation with our students early on. We have embedded liberal arts principles into our courses so that our students master the power of rhetoric and critical ethical reasoning to unpick ethically-laden scenarios. We use reflection to help them identify and articulate their place within hierarchies of power.

This considerably empowers our students as they have the tools to step back, question authority and make up their own minds about who really benefits from engineering design. There is more to do, and we will be incorporating more historic achievements of non-Western engineers to bring a global lens to their understanding of engineering development.

Ada Lovelace Day is great time to take stock of achievements and commit to do more. What a truly incredible woman she was. What a transformation we may see in the engineering sector when we start to see a real diversity of people at all levels of our organisations. There are many more Ada-like misfits who break STEM stereotypes, but it can get tiring being different. All of us can be more vigilant about whether our actions or our inaction is impacting the diversity of talent we see throughout STEM.

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About the author

Dr Patricia Xaiver, Associate Professor and Programme Leader for Integrated Engineering

Patricia has a varied career as both a practicing engineer and engineering academic. She has worked in design consultancies on highway design, flood management and green infrastructure projects. She has spent the last ten years in higher education, conducting increasingly interdisciplinary teaching and research, collaborating with biologists, social scientists and psychologists.

Her interest in interdisciplinarity and its complexities led to her current area of research on the tensions that exist at the interfaces between engineering and other disciplines. She is fascinated by engineering identities and habits, and what is means to become an engineer. Her research includes characterising the intersection between personal and professional value systems in engineering, how the process of training engineers appears to prioritise certain habits (e.g. an adherence to tradition and authority), and de-prioritises others (e.g. the role and value of considering emotion and ethics in engineering design).

Patricia brings this experience to the faculty and classroom, to help NMITE students become technically competent graduates who also have skills drawn from the humanities, making them more effective at recognising how power relationships impact communities and other-than-human stakeholders. The planet can’t be fixed by reproducing a business-as-usual attitude, so Patricia is invested in creating engineers who think differently, have the bravery to work within complex, ambiguous and ethically-laden situations, and are able to recognise and capitalise on the strengths of other disciplines to form and lead effective interdisciplinary teams.