Happy Ada Lovelace Day! It’s been seven years since it was founded by Suw Charman-Anderson. While that is an eternity in the tech world (think how many new iPhones have been released since!), there are things that move more slowly in tech than an app release schedule.
Our Mendeley Mobile Apps Product Manager shares her thoughts on why we still need to celebrate Ada Lovelace, and by association, all women in STEM.
A little history
Before we discuss why we still (should) celebrate Ada Lovelace day, let’s first look at who was Ada Lovelace.
Ada became countess of Lovelace through marriage, but before that she was educated in mathematics and logic. This was unusual for girls in her time, but her mother promoted her interests in these subjects. Through her interest in math, she met Charles Babbage, known as the ‘father of computers’. In the early 1840s, Ada wrote a set of notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which were later recognised as being the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine. As such, she is known as the world’s first computer programmer. Not just the world’s first female programmer (how she is often referred), but the first programmer. Full stop.
In addition, her vision included the capability of computers going beyond just number-crunching, which is what many others including Babbage focused on at the time. She was a visionary beyond her time. She was also a woman, in a period where it was uncommon for even wealthy women to have enjoyed education that included mathematics or science. A more common pursuit for women in that time was to study more feminine subjects, such as music.
(Of course now we know there is a relationship between music and mathematics, and there are studies suggesting music can help with mathematics education.)
Today, women have far more opportunities than in Ada’s time. Though the gender ratio in technology and engineering is below 50-50, a considerable number of women work in tech these days. Yet, they are still under represented at tech conferences and in technology itself. Combine this with the varying statistics around salary disparities between men and women (in similar roles), and we are still facing different gaps that need to be closed.
Ada Lovelace Day is meant to bring awareness to great work done by women in STEM fields. Why? Because despite science education being available to girls and boys equally, we do not see the same number of men and women in these jobs. There are various unconscious biases we all have, and each of them may contribute to this disparity.
Computer Science as “Women’s work”?
History rarely goes in a straight line, and when it comes to women in tech, there have been a few interesting detours. Today, you imagine the typical dev team to be mostly men. The pendulum swung another way once upon a time. In the 1940s women were hired to work on the ENIAC machine, one of the world’s first computer. By the 1960s, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article showcasing “Computer Girls” and programming as a great career option for women. In fact, programming was considered a mostly feminine endeavour. Unfortunately, not for the right reasons. Employers expected programming to be low-skilled clerical work similar to typing and filing. The Cosmopolitan article even refers to it being akin to “planning a dinner party”. Developing hardware was considered the more difficult, and thus masculine, aspect of computers. Nonetheless, women continued to be hired even as the industry started to change and become more biased towards men, simply because there was such a demand for programmers.
Changing the discussion
The fact that we still need reminders about bias in STEM jobs favoring men over women says the discussion on this topic is far from done. Although it is definitely a gender discussion, it is also one of ability. I’d like to suggest a challenge and a change of perspective in that discussion. Perhaps if we stop thinking of classically STEM fields as “hard” versus for example the arts as “easy/easier”, or specifically feminine/masculine, then we may change the discussion for the next generations. I remember growing up being told that “Math is for boys”. Followed by “Math is hard”. It is universally known that our culture and societal expectations greatly influence our career choices. Ada Lovelace pursued math at a time when it was highly unusual for women. There is no way to know if and how much resistance she was met with along the way. We do know her family was well off, which certainly helped her in her studies and scientific pursuits.
The discussion should really not be about gender at all, even if today we focus on women’s achievements in STEM. Instead, let’s start opening up the conversation to say nursing and teaching are great careers for boys, and studying physics is just as exciting as linguistics. Then perhaps we do not only see more women in STEM fields, but more men in the arts and social sciences. When we are all pursuing careers where we can make a difference, and careers we love, these fields become a better place for everyone, regardless of gender.
Christine Buske received an HBSc in Biotechnology & Economics, and a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience, from the University of Toronto. Since completing her PhD, she has left academia for a career in technology and loves all things mobile. You follow her on Twitter. Have you checked out the Mendeley mobile apps yet? Mendeley is available on both iOS and Android.