Skillsoft Blog

Why we need Ada Lovelace now more than ever

By Tara O’Sullivan

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Recently someone decided that it was time to remind everyone just how unsuited women are to math, engineering and the like. Oh, how I smiled and thought I wonder what Ada Lovelace would think. In case you need a fresher – which apparently some definitely do – Ada Lovelace, born Ada Gordon in 1815 to mathematics-loving Annabella Milbanke and her husband, the romantic poet Lord Byron, was according to Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, “The Enchantress of Numbers who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

Often referred to “the first computer programmer,” her notes on The Analytical Engine, a machine that had all the essential elements of a modern computer, inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.

Her very promising future was cut short when, at age 36, she died of cancer. However such was her impact that she has become a powerful symbol for women in technology today. Which is why, in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day was launched via a simple pledge to a blog and has grown in size and scope with each passing year. This year a ‘science cabaret’ was held on October 10 in London, with other events from conferences to Wikipedia ‘edit-a-thons’ happening all across the globe.

The aim or the hope for the day is to encourage women and young girls to get involved and pursue STEM careers, fields where currently women are woefully underrepresented.

How woefully?

  • At 10%, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.
  • Only around 20% of A-Level physics students are girls, and this has not changed in 25 years.
  • 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female.
  • The proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained
  • virtually static since 2012.
  • Between 2012-2015 women made up 47% of the UK’s workforce, but only 13% of STEM workers.

And yet science tells us that when women pursue STEM careers, they are both successful and content. In a survey of 300 female engineers, 84% were either happy or extremely happy with their career choice and engineering students are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries.

So what’s the problem?

I think there is more than one, but much of it comes down to, as Jessica Nordell says “the idea that women are not as good is so deeply embedded in the mind of so many people in positions of power, that it is not even recognized. It’s a belief system that leads one to automatically and without awareness, connect ‘women’ with ‘lower standards’ and ‘woman as good as a man’ with ‘the exception.’ …And its cumulative effects are profound. It’s why women must be 2.5 times as good as men to be considered equally competent. It’s why holding blind auditions for orchestras increase women’s chances of advancing to final rounds by 50%. It’s why professors who receive requests for mentorship from prospective students are less likely to respond if the request comes from a woman. It’s why women are hired and promoted based on proof, while men are hired and promoted based on potential.”

What can we do?

Lots. But for starters, let’s begin by keeping up the momentum. In school encourage/mandate that all students take coding classes. Consistently and repeatedly reinforce the idea that everyone can do math, and that with hard work and dedication, everyone can, if they so choose, follow a career in STEM. As a young girl growing up in the 80s, I was fortunate to have two parents who never assumed that because I was a girl I could not do certain things. Both actively encouraged my sister and me to learn about computers – way before most in fact, and this thinking/mindset helped me forge a path in digital marketing before most people had even heard of the internet, let alone digital marketing.

I know the figures can be a little disheartening, and it would be easy to lose sight or give up, but recently I heard the following story, and it gave me hope. A colleague’s nine-year-old daughter was asked to pick between the colours red and blue for her martial arts uniform. She picked blue, and when the adult present expressed surprise at this, she looked puzzled. When she was told that blue was seen as traditionally a male/boys colour, she shook her head in disbelief and said “Why? None of my girl friends think like that. In fact, we all love blue the best.”

It is this bucking of stereotyping that will hopefully see a new generation of women regard STEM and careers in this field as equally open and equally suitable for all and will, in the great tradition of Ada, enjoy a passion and fascination with machines, engineering principles and all things scientific.

Tara O’ Sullivan is the Chief Creative Officer at Skillsoft.

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