Meet The Inspiring Women Of Science, Tech & Space Exploration

Everyone’s favourite Time Lord is back, with a brand new incarnation, fresh adventures and more fantastical aliens to keep you up at night. To celebrate we met the real life Doctor Whos: three women breaking moulds and reimagining the status quo in the fields of science, tech and space exploration. While women still only make up a depressing 14.4% of the STEM industry, the number of girls studying these subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at school is on the rise, with the number of female students taking computing at A-level up by 34% this year. With a renewed focus on breaking down gender barriers, and a certain new owner of the sonic screwdriver, it is little wonder that more girls are encouraged to embrace the exciting worlds of STEM. We caught up with these amazing women, at London’s inspiring Science Museum, to find out more about what it takes to be a STEM superstar…

ANISAH OSMAN BRITTON, founder of 23 Code Street, an all-female coding school which uses tuition fees to fund the digital education of impoverished girls in India.

What drew you to tech and an entrepreneurial career?
After school I took a year out before starting my first company: POCKETMUNI. With that I then moved to London to do the Start Up Games during the Olympics. When I was there someone said: "Oh Anisah, you’re the founder of a tech company." I never thought of it like that. That was when I started learning how to code, and that was the start of my technical career. I think for me, what was incredible was that technology was shaping so many aspects of my life, but I had no idea what underpinned it. It was an eye-opening moment for me!
Did the lack of diversity in the industry make you nervous to start your own tech companies?
I have this belief that I deserve to be anywhere I choose to be, underpinned by my core belief of feminism and equality, so I have always felt like I deserve to be in the positions I am in. But so many times I have not been viewed the way I wanted to be viewed. I was frequently asked to go off and make coffee when I was an operations director. I have never let these things affect me, because I think if I believe in my position in these places, I can make it happen. I have then been able to use my power to make it happen for other people in the same way.
Why did you set up a coding school just for women?
I wanted to create a space where people could build confidence and skills before going out into the world, knowing that you know this stuff. I don’t want people to have to deal with competition and ego when they’re learning. I wanted to target women who didn’t necessarily want to be programmers but they wanted to understand technology more, they wanted a seat at the table, they wanted to build companies like I had. I found that people who looked like me, especially young Indian women or young black women, were saying: "We haven’t seen anyone like us, there are no women of colour." I hadn’t expected that to be such a big deal.
How do you make tech inclusive? And why is that important?
People have always said to me that getting diverse people through the door is difficult but we’ve actually never found it difficult and I think that’s because we are built for everyone: we don’t have alcohol, we have vegetarian food, we’ve always had a prayer room or a place to sit to sort of be away from people so that introverted people can come too. One of the things I noticed as a Muslim woman is that we didn’t really have many Muslim women applying, so we partnered with Muslim women's site Amaliah and now we have at least two Muslim women on each course. It shows other women that they can do it too.
23 Code Street’s focus is on empowering women, both here and in India. Are you a real life Doctor Who, helping people through tech?
Ha, well it is so important to me! I lived in India and I think you need to work there, on the ground, and make sustainable change; empower not just give charity. We partner with NGOs on the ground that work with girls aged 6-14 and who work with disenfranchised women over the age of 18-35. I think tech is key to empowering women. I hate saying it, but I think so many companies built by women and people of colour and the LGBTQ communities are built by anger and necessity. We see what is missing, we see where we are being overlooked and we think: If I can see it, other people must see it too – and need it. That is quite powerful.

ANUSHKA SHARMA has had a career spanning everything from politics to technology, including work with the Olympics and NASA. She is now the founder and director of NAAUT, which aims to invigorate, democratise and diversify the future of space travel.

What is it about space that you have always found so enticing and inspirational?
I feel like space is the equaliser. Space has always been there for everyone to look at. If you grew up in a shanty town in Mumbai, you could still look up and see space. That’s why I think it is so important we get involved in the conversation about space travel because we need to make sure we are designing pathways to access space that make it fair and equal to all.
What led you to create NAAUT?
It is really a culmination of the last three or four years’ work in the space sector and also my lifetime curiosity of it. It all kicked off when I got chosen by NASA to attend the launch of a new satellite in America after I had been doing some communications work on social media for them. Through that I realised that you didn’t have to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist to work in the space sector, or to access it. With NAAUT, I have finally found my place in the sector; creating innovation and frontier technology for strategic impact, to wake up this world, and make sure that technology is applied on Earth as well as helping us with our human explorative endeavours.
What would you like the future of space to be?
I genuinely would love to see much more collaboration because there are some countries that don’t have space agencies. It shouldn’t mean that if you come from a country that doesn’t have a space agency or agenda that you can’t see space in your future. I want to work collectively with lots of different people from all sorts of industries to really deliver a space that is equal and fair for everyone to be a part of. We need so many diverse opinions, and skills. We need so many different sectors – artists and designers, not just scientists! What are we going to wear when we go into space? We’re going to care! I want my favourite brand of trainers to be space-safe and space-proof! That’s the next step.
If you could go anywhere in the TARDIS, where would you go and why?
Oooo probably Antarctica on Earth, and anywhere in space where I could see Earth! Even though I love space, I still have so much curiosity about our own planet.

JODIE AZHAR has worked in the video game industry for over 10 years as a technical artist. She is now an independent game designer, setting up her own development studio.

What got you initially interested in this as a career path?
I grew up playing video games with my mum and sister. It was a bonding experience for us, interacting together. At school I really loved maths and science but I didn’t know what career I would be interested in. I really liked art and maths, so I did both at A-level and then when it came to university courses, I managed to find a course that did programming, maths and 3D art. It was only in my third year that I realised that people actually make video games! Being both technical and creative really appeals to me – because I can write something and immediately see it on screen.
What does it take to get into the video games industry?
These days it is really quite competitive to get your first job in the industry. I got my first job by going to a careers fair at a video games event. I got to chat to people in person and luckily one of the companies I spoke to had a position available for a junior animator role. These days there are a lot more internships and paid internships. I still think networking and meeting developers and actually meeting people face to face is really valuable. University can teach you how to make a video game – all the technical stuff, or the art side – but it is still only when you are making them for a living that you really learn so much.
What inspired you to set up your own game design studio, and what will it be like?
When I was working at a big studio I had a really great time and I got to lead a team, but I felt that I would have more impact setting up my own studio – so that I can push the values that I care about from the top, and ingrain it in the studio’s mission.
Diversity will be a really big part of that, too; at the moment, only 19% of game developers in the UK are female. In my studio I want people to share ideas and tell stories that aren’t necessarily being told in mainstream games. I want people to draw on their own experiences and the games to be representative of that. In the future the people I hire may be those wanting to work in tech, or just simply some young girl who wants to be the heroine of the story she creates.
What would you like the future of gaming to look like?
I would like it to be more inclusive and accepting. In the UK, around half of game players are female and a lot are over 40. I don’t even really like the term 'gamer' because so many people now play video games, it is a lot more a part of our daily lives, in the same way that people watch films. I’d like to see a lot more video games become accessible, because there is still this technology barrier of people who aren’t particularly tech-savvy. Games and gaming experiences are just as legitimate in terms of culture and storytelling as film and books, but they have the added benefit of being interactive.
Would you ever want to create a video game for the new Doctor Who?
Oh it would be the most amazing character to create a video game for, because it has the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy element: you can create these different and unique enemies, Doctor Who’s companions, the people she meets, you can really get that chance to give character to the people you put in that video game. You could make something that is really quirky and fun but you could also, at the same time, take it from so many different angles. That’s one of the best things about being a developer: you get to create these amazing, immersive worlds that players from all over the world get to experience.
From empowering women on Earth to championing the equality and accessibility of space travel, these women provide much-needed diverse representation for young girls thinking about their future in tech, science or even the exploration of the galaxy. The Doctor would be proud.
Doctor Who is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sundays

More from Tech

R29 Original Series