Ada Lovelace Day: Why it Matters

It’s Ada Lovelace Day again! Not exactly a holiday or a date too many people outside of STEM fields are familiar with, but nonetheless an important highlight. Seven years ago Ada Lovelace day was founded by Suw Charman-Anderson, and it was born from online discussions about the lack of women at tech conferences. So for seven years we’ve been celebrating Ada Lovelace day, which in the tech industry is an eternity. If you are not sure that’s true, consider that in same year Ada Lovelace day was founded, the iPhone 3G S came out. By now, we’re a number of iPhone generations and countless apps later.

Before I get into the reasons why we should care about everything Ada Lovelace day stands for, it helps to get a better understanding of where the name came from:

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She became countess of Lovelace through her marriage to William King-Noel. Ada was privileged. Not just because she was born into a family of considerable means, but more so because she was given the opportunity to study mathematics and logic. At a time when this was not a regular pursuit for young women. It turns out she really took to these subjects, and thanks to 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 recognized as being the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine. As such, she is known as the world’s first computer programmer.

I will let that sink in for a second.

So, did you catch that I did not say the first female programmer? Ada Lovelace was simply the first programmer, period. What’s better is that in a time when others were focusing on computer’s capabilities to do number-crunching, Ada’s vision included tasks far beyond just calculations. Although she was a visionary and talented mathematician, she was also a woman. We can only guess is she, as a woman in STEM, ran into any resistance based on her gender. Nonetheless, tech actually used to be a woman’s job, believe it or not.

Software development as a career for women

Cosmopolitan magazine, today still known for publishing mostly fashion and beauty articles, published an article encouraging women to pursue careers in computer programming. If that sounds like something that may have graced the cover last month, you could not be more wrong. This article, encouraging women to pursue computer science, was published in the 1960s. Programming was compared to “preparing a dinner party”, in the article. I can only guess to help women relate and make it seem attainable.

computergirls-cosmopolitan-magazine-stem

Well prior to this article, women were hired to work on the ENIAC machine in the 1940s, one of the world’s first computers.  Being a computer programmer and woman in tech was made to sound attainable in the Cosmopolitan article in the 60s. How the conversation has changed! Comments like “computers are for boys”, and “math is hard”, are the type of comments girls have heard at home, and in school, for a few generations. To be fair, the conversation is maybe only starting to really change now. I slightly misrepresented the truth, it is not that women were encouraged to go into computer programming because they were considered competent in STEM fields. Rather, software development was considered to be low-skilled clerical work similar to typing and filing. Developing hardware was considered the more difficult, and thus masculine, aspect of computers. Nonetheless, women played an important role in suggesting improvements for hardware based on their software development experiences.

STEM women

Masculinization of Tech

Why the industry went from software development being considered as typical a “woman’s job” as secretary work, is not clear to me. However, an interesting article by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research (Standford University). Provides a useful summary of how hiring tools used systematically made it more difficult for women to enter the field. It may have been unintentional, but the article does hint at male programmers wanting to elevate the prestige of their field. This may relate to ego, classically a more ‘male trait’. A more alarming trend was the increase in advertising linking female computer operators/programmers to increased human error and inefficiency. Somehow, a stereotype started to emerge where good programmers were believed to be “disinterested in people” (I suppose because you work with computers all day? As if an aptitude for working with technology makes you antisocial). This translated into personality questionnaires favouring (certain) men. For a while all was still well, because the sheer volume of programmers needed meant women were still getting jobs.

Unfortunately, the trend has continued and now only 18% of undergraduate computer science majors are women, compared to even 37% in 1985. As we’ve seen women in tech dip to ultimate low numbers, we now see concerned people try to reverse this trend. It’s not easy though. Plenty of articles exist on how tech is not a friendly place for women, how many women leave their careers in tech early or feel from the beginning like it is not a viable option for them. We may all have similar access to science education, whether we are male or female, but we are certainly not all encouraged to pursue STEM fields as women. It may be innocent, but praising a girl for her demure character and good looks while praising her brother for his interest in books and chemistry sets a tone to what we expect from the next generation. I certainly grew up with these dialogues in my community as well. How I ended up in science, and then tech, is perhaps thanks to a stubborn disregard for what I “should do”, and a strong “why not” attitude to pursuing what interests me.

My generation, and the ones since, have considerable more opportunities than we had in Ada’s time. However, women are still strongly under represented at tech conferences. Even if they don’t occupy 50% of jobs in tech and STEM fields, their representation at conferences and in the public discussions is even less that their representation on the job floor. This is precisely why Ada Lovelace day was founded, to focus attention on accomplishments by women in STEM.

Perhaps, one day the discussion will no longer center around gender when we celebrate accomplishments in STEM fields. For now, we need to keep the dialogue fresh and educate ourselves, and others, on overcoming unconscious bias against women in STEM. Similarly, we may see more men in the social sciences when we no longer associate jobs or entire fields of work as specifically feminine or masculine. Men are great nurses and women make fantastic astronausts and physicists. While I celebrate being a woman in tech, and a woman in STEM, I equally look forward to a day where that is no longer as remarkable. After all, when we are all pursuing careers and interests that suit us regardless of our gender, imagine what we can get done!

Want to join me in celebrating Ada Lovelace day? The University of Toronto is putting on a networking event for women in STEM, today at 5:45pm. The event is called “She Did That: A celebration of women in STEM, in honour of Ada Lovelace”. If you cannot make it today, the Steacie Science and Engineering library is putting on an event on the 27th of October: help edit wikipedia pages for topics around women in STEM. For world-wide events, you can check here. Let me know in the comments if you will be joining me at the University of Toronto later today! 


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".

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