Celebrating Women's Contribution to Science

21/10/2014 11:07 | Updated 20 December 2014

When I'm asked about the best piece of advice I would give to any woman seeking a career in the fields of science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) - where government figures show that women hold just 15.5% of jobs - my first response is to pick a good mentor.

Last Tuesday (14th October), the world celebrated Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of Ada Lovelace's contribution to British scientific technology in the 1800s. Through her work with Charles Babbage, Lovelace is credited with developing an algorithm that led to her being commonly lauded as the first computer programmer. One of the interesting things about her story is that Babbage himself certainly valued her contribution, and he said so publicly.

In contrast, one of the most influential but lesser-known of the female scientists who really made an impression on me - Rosalind Franklin - was not championed in her time. Her work in analysing the X-ray diffraction of images of DNA led her to becoming the first person to photograph and identify the double-helix shape of DNA. She never looked for praise, nor was she in a rush to be the first. She was merely concerned that everything she did was scientifically accurate and correct, rather than trying to win a scientific race.

Tragically, she died of ovarian cancer at the young age of just 37 and, I believe, did not receive the recognition she deserved when a few years later Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins were jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". This work was based on Franklin's photographic images and data which determined the presence of the double helix.

And so it struck me again that Babbage's support of and admiration for Lovelace, and the lack of recognition afforded to Franklin in her time, is a reminder of the value of having a champion.
I am fortunate and grateful to have been supported and mentored throughout my own career as a scientist and business leader. It was thanks to two particular champions - Stefan Von Holtzbrinck and Richard Charkin - that I have been able to grow, develop and forge a rewarding and varied career, from my first role as an editor at Nature magazine, all the way through to becoming the CEO of Macmillan Science and Education, a global company with 5,700 employees.

That personal experience has cemented my belief that whatever the work environment - whether it's in a lab or in a company - you need to seek out people who are willing to support you, who are thinking about how you're going to develop and who take a personal interest in your career progression. I also think it's important to choose places to work that inspire you, alongside peers that stretch your imagination, help you develop your skills, and support your endeavours.

Everyone faces barriers in their career, not just women. But in my experience, women often tend to be more critical of themselves than men, and that perhaps is the greatest barrier. I believe you have to really have confidence in yourself and in what you can achieve before you can start trying to confront the barriers that others put in front of you.

On top of that, as women, we have such high expectations of ourselves, which are often unrealistic. If we don't feel that we meet each and every one of them to 100% then somehow that's a failure, but it's not. If we can be a little bit more realistic with ourselves, a little bit more supportive of others in the same situation, we'll achieve much more. The biggest hurdles we face can be the constraints we put on ourselves, not always the ones others impose on us.

As we celebrate Lovelace's legacy, my hope is that we may also remind ourselves of the importance of mentorship, of having a champion and championing others, and of the tremendous benefits that these things can bring to the next generation of female scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists.