One of the most powerful ways to change a social norm is to share stories. Stories are incredible ways to share information, inspire and inform. We’re suffering a lack of participation in technical fields, partly because of an inability to tell the right stories in the right way. This has meant that our social norms around technical fields are incredibly off.
I’ve spent years working at the grassroots level telling the stories of #womeninSTEM. Each time, changing perceptions and aspirations for girls, young women and their influencers. Frustratingly, wider society is overly familiar with the stories of ‘dead, white, male’ scientists. Newton and the apple; Einstein and the hair. It is taking the field far too long to learn from our mistakes. Our retelling of scientific HIStory is missing the HERstory.
It’s 2019, the erasure continues
Take the example of the QEPrize, which generates great press. A two-yearly £1 million prize given to pioneering innovators, the 2019 recipients were the creators of GPS technology. Initial feelings of excitement turned to dread as I learnt that rather than seizing the opportunity to share the story of the incredible Gladys West, the judges had decided to honour Bradford, James, Hugo and Richard.
In setting out to raise the profile of a field which desperately needs more uptake, is of incredible importance, and has been contributed to by a rich diversity of people, the prize had not only missed an opportunity but had ended up reinforcing exactly the narrative that got us here in the first place.
An even fresher stateside example: a 60 Minutes segment on ‘girls in tech’ saw several excellent organisations snubbed in favour of an organisation not even focussing on the issue. Littlebits CEO Ayah Bdeir has explained the erasure situation in full here (tl;dr – on a news segment about #girlsinSTEM perhaps have a female expert, rather than a male ‘expert’).
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the different results
It’s always been obvious to me that we need to do better at telling the right stories in a variety of ways. We need to get across the message that technical fields are incredibly creative, very altruistic and for a broad range of people. To change the social norm, it’s important for us to be strategic and smart about how this is done.
Marie Curie’s lonely existence in the social norm almost serves as an ‘exception’ that proves the rule in our consciousness of technical women.
There are, of course, many, many more stories to tell. Stories of women like Marie-Sophie Germain, Hedy Lamar, Gladys West, Stephanie Shirley, Katherine Johnson, Sarah Guppy and so many other non-dead, non-white, non-guys. We need to talk about the differing levels of impact that these people had. We also need to tell the human, relatable parts of these stories.
After learning about Anne Pacros, a payload system engineer on the Solar Orbiter Mission, the girls designed a 3D satellite poster. They chose what their satellite will observe and what equipment it needed. @khswarwick @stemettes @esascience #eatsleepstem #stemillions #stem pic.twitter.com/08pVle8jKi
— Warwick Prep (@WarwickPrep) March 1, 2019
Different stories matter
At Stemettes events, we’re conscious to have different types of role models to maximise the affinity that the audience can have with them. A black woman might spark the interest of a black attendee. A role model who does jujitsu might pique the interest of a young person who practices the sport. A few years ago, a Stemette attendee’s summer was made when she met a vegan tech entrepreneur. She knew she could succeed in being herself and sticking to her personal value system. She’s now studying Computer Science at Cambridge.
The channels, too, are many. We’re still neglecting the most efficient ones. For years I’ve banged on about the merits of having a technical female character on the popular British soap opera, Eastenders. Wikipedia’s technical biography entries are incredibly male. Music videos launch the latest crazes and change attitudes. Even comedians raise awareness of important issues.
This is what non-technical society bases its view of technical people on. Scraps of science representation across culture & media. To be a part of the social norm, this is where we need to bring our compelling stories to. The success of movies like Hidden Figures, Black Panther and Bombshell is a testament to what happens when we work to include technical female narratives. I loved watching IT Consultant Manon Lagreve’s journey on the last season of the Great British Bake Off. I’ve since had her on as a guest in my new #WomenTechCharge podcast, out this month with the Evening Standard.
Some small steps in the right direction
Eastenders have announced that new character Mary Smith’s backstory will be loosely based on the life of Professor Sue Black. I was gobsmacked to read an email from the management company of top UK rapper Dave, asking me to cameo in the video for the first track, ‘Black’, from his surprise debut album Psychodrama. (He *is* a rapper, so the video comes with Parental Advisory.) The film about IT pioneer Stephanie Shirley’s life is in production.
I’m hopeful that we’ll soon see much better technical female characters in sitcoms than we’ve seen in the Big Bang Theory and the IT Crowd. Allowing these narratives to be framed in the context of family drama, normal lives and everyday conversations will go a long way to normalise technical women.
What I’m also calling for is that organisations with the resources and clout to tell stories which are heard, like the QEPrize & 60 Minutes, take some time to reevaluate their processes. It’s important to do this wholesale. Such a change can also help those within the industry who are inadvertently forcing people out. Managers and colleagues use the terrible social norm as a basis for their bad behaviour.
— Fluxx & Albion (@albiondotco) January 31, 2019
As a keynote speaker at events worldwide, I speak to companies, organisations and governments of all shapes and sizes. I’m continuously using stages and now use my podcast to highlight HERstory (past and present) as a way to facilitate change that today’s society requires. The future of the field I love – and, by extension, life as we know it – depends on us telling the right stories and being smart about where and how we share them.
These stories, of course, include those of dead, white males, but also so many more alongside them. Whether it’s International Women’s Day, or not.