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Tag: Ada Lovelace

Zombies, Barbies and Bulletproof Vests: Why Science Is for Girls

If I asked you to name five great scientists or inventors, chances are you wouldn’t have much trouble coming up with a list pretty quickly.

But how many on that list would be women?

Girls could be forgiven for thinking that all the important scientific and technological breakthroughs were made by men such as Newton, Einstein or Bill Gates. The truth is, brilliant women have been involved in science and technology ever since someone first rolled a log down a hill and called it a wheel. They have just never got the kudos they deserve.

In fact, the Nobel Prize committee tried to stop perhaps the most famous female scientist of all time, Marie Curie, from attending the ceremony to receive her second Nobel Prize, in 1911. A widow, she had taken a lover and it was thought no one would want to sit at her table because it was a scandal. She went anyway, and dined with the King of Sweden. Rock on, Marie!

Girls cannot be what they cannot see, so it’s time women in science and technology had the spotlight. I stumbled on a cartoon that gives us a great way to engage with girls on this topic: “Zombie Marie Curie”. Zombies are hot right now and perhaps the only thing that could have made this cartoon more relevant is if they had slipped a vampire in there as well. I think it deserves a spot on the wall of every high school lab; it’s available at and is free for noncommercial use.

Comic by

I am always impressed by how much girls care for others and want to make a difference to the world. So I think another way to connect with girls about science is to show them that it isn’t all just theory in a textbook — it is a way to change the world, to change people’s lives. Take these achievements for starters:

Kevlar: Countless lives have been saved thanks to kevlar, which is in the bulletproof vests worn by soldiers, police and security guards. It finds its way into safety helmets, fireproof clothing, skis, hiking and camping gear and the cables that hold up suspension bridges. Thank you, Stephanie Kwolek, who invented it at Dupont in the 1970s.

Hedy Lamarr, actress and inventor

Mobile phone communications: If you like old movies, you’ll know the glamorous 1940s star Hedy Lamarr. But you might not know that with George Anthiel she co-invented a form of coded wireless communication to outwit the Nazis in World War II. The technology she helped invent now makes mobile phones and other wireless devices possible.

Computer programming: The first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace. A mathematician, she wrote a program for the prototype of a digital computer created by Charles Babbage, back in the 1840s. 

Prostheses for breast-cancer survivors: Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll in 1959. Heaven knows Barbie doesn’t exactly have realistic body proportions, yet as a breast-cancer survivor, Ruth Handler later developed Nearly Me, a range of realistic-looking post-mastectomy breast prostheses. Speaking of Barbie, in an attempt to inspire girls to enter the male-dominated field of architecture, Mattel and the American Institute of Architects recently held a competition to design a Barbie dream house. Female architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar won, with a design that is as green as it is pink: it has solar panels, locally sourced materials and other eco-friendly details. When I was a kid I loved Barbie and I sneakliy fancy sitting down to play with this, so it’s a pity that Mattel is not putting the female architects’ design into production. Oh, the irony!

Barbie Dream House by architecture graduates Ting Li and Maja Paklar

Blissymbols Printer: To help people who have disabilities that prevent them from speaking, 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman wrote a software program that translates symbols a person points to on a touch pad into written language.

Girls like Rachel Zimmerman continue to achieve amazing things in science and technology. When Google held its science fair this year, 10,000 young people aged 13 to 18 entered and girls won the top prizes in all three age categories. Shree Bose uncovered problems with a popular ovarian cancer treatment. Lauren Hodge found that chicken can bind to toxic chemicals in marinades when it is char-grilled. And Naomi Shah used her own statistical analysis and a new mathematical model to quantify how air quality affects asthma symptoms.

I would love to get some conversations going in classrooms about the achievements of girls and women in science and technology, so here are some ideas for conversation starters or assignment topics:

  • Do you think women who have made scientific or technological breakthroughs have received as much recognition as their male counterparts? Why?
  • Do you think there are barriers to girls entering careers in science and technology today? If so, what are they?
  • How would you use science or technology to change the world?




Real-World Tech Influencers

Last week an infographic went viral that posed the question “Which Female Tech Influencer Are You?” By answering inane questions such as “Jimmy Choos or running shoes?” and “White wine spritzer or tequila with worm?” you are supposed to find out which successful female tech influencer you most resemble.


Please. I know this is just meant to be fun but really — isn’t it incredibly patronising to suggest the biggest decision made by dynamos such as Google vice president Marissa Mayer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is which handbag they might like to take to work? Writer and real-world tech influencer Alexia Tsotsis nailed it on the site Tech Crunch:

The women who have been highlighted here are smart, driven, and have worked hard for their success. They deserve so much more than being reduced to an infographic bobble-head on a cartoon body.

When you think of all the legends in the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs), you rarely hear the names of women. The usual names that spring to mind are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman and, recently, Mark Zuckerberg , for being the genius behind the popular social networking website Facebook. Can you imagine anyone asking these men how they prefer to style their hair?

How can we move beyond limiting stereotypes and sexist sniggering?

By telling HERstory!

HERstory is an initiative of Take Back The Tech, a grassroots campaign that encourages everyone, particularly girls and women, to take control of technology and use it as a tool to do something incredibly vital: put an end to violence against women. The campaign lends itself to some excellent and much-needed school-based work on cyber safety and activism. Their website includes sensible online safety tips, campaign banners and posters, videos, blog posts and an “Idea Kitchen” filled with inspiration.  One of those ideas is to tell HERstory by spotlighting “the innovative girls and women around you who are doing creative, inventive and groundbreaking things with technology”.  I had never heard of the following women who shaped the cyber frontier until I visited the website for Take Back The Tech:

  • Ada Lovelace — the first computer programmer in history, who wrote the first algorithm specifically for the computer
  • Grace Hopper — the inventor of the first computer language composed of words
  • Betty Holberton, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings and Fran Bilas — the six women who were the original programmers of the first general-purpose computer, ENIAC.

Why does telling HERstory matter? Because when only men get attention for their roles in ICT:

This contributes to the idea that ICTs is the domain of men and boys as creators and innovators, and that women and girls are mainly just users and consumers. This in turn affects the choices that parents make in encouraging their children to study science and technology based on their gender, and the masculine culture that permeates the industry, making it hard for women and girls to enter as equal participants and decision-makers. What happens is a perpetuation of this cycle of gender stereotypes and myths that cast women as passive background actors in the development of ICTs and men as active groundbreakers – the stuff of legends.

— Take Back The Tech

I am always inspired by the women I know who are using technology to make changes. The team over at Collective Shout have initiated a number of successful campaigns lobbying corporations to end their objectification and sexualisation of women. Their recent petition to ban the release of Kanye West’s Monster video now has almost 7,000 signatories.

And I am really excited about the new site launched by the Equality Rights Alliance, Sharing Young Women’s Stories. This site has been set up to celebrate 100 Years of International Women’s Day. It features a number of guest bloggers (including yours truly) and encourages people to upload and share stories of women who inspire. There is also a postcard that can be downloaded and sent to  Minister Garrett, asking him to do more to promote healthy body image. Enlighten Education is going to pay to have 10,000 of these cards printed to distribute to our client schools during our upcoming in-school events. We find girls willingly embrace activism!

So, perhaps a revised infographic suggesting the decisions women really make when using technology to shape their careers, and indeed their culture, might actually pose questions like: “You see an injustice. Do you blog on it or set up an on-line petition?” and ” You like to share the love and encourage the women around you who are making changes. Do you Tweet about their work or set up a Facebook Fan Page?”

No . . . even that would be far too limiting. The smart cyber-amazons I know don’t just chose one path. They do it all.


Other Butterfly Effect posts on girls and technology that may inform and inspire you (particularly when planning International Women’s Day events at your home or school) include:

And my 3-part series on cyber world:

Part 1 — What is working?

Part 2  — Cyber bully busting

Part 3 — Dealing with more difficult truths


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