23 June marks national Women in Engineering Day, but this year’s ‘Oscars of innovation’ highlighted a dearth of women inventors. By Etan Smallman
When Sir Tim Hunt referred to his “trouble with girls”, the joint-winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for medicine got into a little spot of bother himself.
The uproar over his comments about women – that “three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry” – ended in the resignation of the self-described “chauvinist” from his post at University College London.
Just as the 72-year-old was penning his au revoir, across the Channel, Europe’s finest scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs were gathering for the European Inventor Award (EIA) in Paris, an event that neatly managed to mirror the industry’s continent-wide women trouble.
Last year, there was not a single woman winner in any of the six categories of the Oscars of innovation. At this year’s awards, just three females were among the 20 finalists: Elizabeth Holmes, the trailblazing 31-year-old Stanford drop-out and CEO of blood-testing company Theranos, who was last year named by Forbes as the world’s youngest ever female self-made billionaire; Masako Yudasaka, who helped discover carbon nanotubes, which have made computers faster and car and aircraft parts more stable; and Laura van ‘t Veer, whose gene-based test for breast cancer can save almost a third of patients from needless chemotherapy.
In the six categories there were two female victors: Yudasaka and Van ‘t Veer both took home 3D-printed trophies.
The problem is not new. The Women into Science and Engineering campaign was launched back in 1984, running development programmes to help women focus on career progression, take on more responsibility or a new role and boost confidence and self-belief. 23 June marks national Women in Engineering Day, organised by the 96-year-old Women’s Engineering Society to publicly celebrate women’s achievements in the field.
Could more be done? Speaking earlier in June, Martha Lane-Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, said “nothing should be off the table”, including women-only shortlists for senior positions in technology companies. Clare Grant, board member of the Women in Mobile Data association, has called for legislation giving tax breaks to companies that implement flexible working and mentoring schemes.
The European Patent Office (EPO), which organises the annual prize-giving, does not record the male-to-female ratio of its patent holders, nor does the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. But women make up just 13% of staff working in science, technology, engineering and maths, according to the Office for National Statistics, and a report published on 15 June by campaign group Tech London Advocates revealed that a quarter of technology companies in London have no women in senior positions.
The dearth of female inventors among the nominees of the awards is not for want of trying, according to EPO president Benoît Battistelli – who points to the fact that nearly half of the jury members were women.
Judge Mandy Haberman – inventor of a best-selling range of baby-feeding devices – is more forthcoming.
“There were plenty of women in the teams behind projects, but generally it was the men who own the patents and run the businesses,” she says. “I think that will change.
“People say, why are there so few women inventors? Almost, in a way, that’s self-fulfilling. The stereotype is nonsense; the reality is that women are natural inventors. Women with families are solving problems all the time in a practical way, they’re just having to spread themselves more thinly.”
Haberman admits that she has been on the receiving end of some “snootiness” from men who turn their noses up at her domestic creations. “But, you know, my inventions have made millions and millions of pounds.”
That sense of snobbery towards inventions designed to transform women’s lives is not confined to the UK, and is also prevalent among digital entrepreneurs.
Ida Tin (not a nominee for the awards), a Dane living in Germany and co-founder of Clue, an app designed to track fertility, says: “We have had investors who’ve said, ‘No, I can’t invest in this because I can’t use the product myself’.
“If there are only white males between 35 and 65, from the western world, and if they only invest in products they can use themselves, that is of course a problem. I think they’re just missing out on a huge opportunity.”
Van ‘t Veer, who triumphed in the small and medium-sized enterprises category at Thursday’s ceremony, says she had previously given little thought to the debate, however concedes that when she goes to meetings and conferences: “I observe that I’m often the only woman there”.
Does she think the entire industry has at least woken up to the benefits that women bring to the lab bench and the boardroom table? “Not yet, I think,” is the reply.
When it comes to encouraging women at boardroom level, the Women’s Engineering Society, which offers a mentoring programme and a scheme to help women return to work after career breaks, says a number of obstacles need to be removed. They include: poor visibility of leading women, a lack of metrics and targets for increasing the gender balance, “not enough data to support the business case for diversity” and a lack of role models.
The organisation is trying to address all levels: targeting girls at school (it is lobbying the Girl Guide Association to design an engineer badge to complement the scientist one it already has), as well as running annual awards to highlight successful women engineers and co-ordinating networking events for those already nearing the top of their fields.
Sophie Wilson, inventor of the ARM processor and a scientist described as “one of the most influential women in the history of computing”, argues that the key to encouraging more women to become inventors is to overturn the “cultural meme” ingrained from babyhood. She believes that we tell children from an early age which jobs are for men and which for women.
She believes that we need to address this through parental influence, culture and media: “Teletubbies is being remade. It’s almost like you need a Teletubby who’s a female engineer and get the message in right at the beginning.” Then she has a eureka moment. “Or a whole set of female engineer Teletubbies, from different disciplines!”