19 June 2018

S5M-11823 International Women in Engineering Day

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-11823, in the name of Gillian Martin, on welcoming women in engineering day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes that Women in Engineering Day is on 23 June 2018; notes that it highlights the work needed to go further and faster to meet the target of 140,000 women engineers by 2022; understands that only 9% of engineers and 18% of the tech workforce are female; notes the view that action must come from the industry and other stakeholders to make the changes within the sector; believes that there are a number of positive action measures that can be taken, such as outreach, placements, training and activities, which target women and girls, and notes the calls for the industry to meet the future needs of the engineering and technology sectors.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will certainly not try to be too frivolous, but I will try to rise to the challenge that Iain Gray issued and give some role models in software engineering and related activities. Girls do belong.

Ada Lovelace, who was Lord Byron’s only legitimate child, was born in 1815 and died in 1852. She was the computer programmer for Charles Babbage, who got a huge amount of money from the Government to develop the analytical machine and the calculating machine. She developed the first computer algorithm and identified the importance of branching—testing and changing the direction of a program depending on the results, which is key to how software works today. She was a mathematician and a computer person. She was largely encouraged by her mother, because her father fled one month after she was born and she never saw him again.

On 5 October 1972, I had the immense privilege of meeting Rear Admiral Grace Hopper at the University of York. Born in 1906, she was a programmer on the US Navy mark 1 computer in 1944. That computer had a partly electromechanical system. One of her program runs failed—a moth was stuck between the contacts. The Americans call a moth a bug, and that bug is Sellotaped to her lab notes and can be seen in a New York museum; it is why we say that computer programs have bugs.

Grace Hopper did something incredibly important. She was the first person to develop a computer program that wrote computer programs. Today, we utterly depend on such computer compilers.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper retired three times from the US Navy. She was re-recruited because she was genuinely indispensable. She finally retired at the age of 80 as the oldest ever uniformed member of the US armed services, but then went to work full-time for the Digital Equipment Corporation, where she was still working at the age of 85.

Stephanie Shirley used the name Steve professionally, so that the people she was dealing with would not know that she was female. She developed a rather deeper voice than the one she might have been born with to use when on the telephone. She founded Female International, which is one of the very successful early computer consultancies. She is still around doing good works in the House of Lords.

I turn to the original NASA computers for the orbital manned missions. In 1962, John Glenn did three hops around the earth. The computer failed for three minutes during his three orbits—only 99.95 per cent reliability was required, and failures were allowed. Thank goodness that Katherine Johnson, who was the orbital mechanical engineer responsible for the mission—or “that computer”, as such ladies were known—was there when the computer failed.

Today in the NASA Langley research center, the director, the chief scientist and the chief technical editor, Pearl Jung, are female. There are plenty of places where girls belong in engineering.


Stewart Stevenson
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