Suw Charman-Anderson founded Ada Lovelace Day in 2009 with the aim of raising the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. It is an international day of celebration that helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike.
“…questions are asked of women that aren’t asked of men. No-one asks men how they balance their family life with their careers, and that’s to the detriment of men as well because the assumption is that they don’t have balance, the assumption is that they’re focused 100% on their careers…”
Starting Ada Lovelace Day as a reaction to the lack of visibility of women in tech
I started Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, really as a reaction to all the tech conferences I’d go to where there were no women on stage, or just one, maybe two if you were lucky. I was getting very cross about that and thinking, “Where are the women in tech?” I knew loads of women in tech and yet we just weren’t getting represented at these big events; actually, not just big events, but events that could be potentially pivotal to your career.
If you’re going to develop a certain type of career you need to be out there, talking about your work. People need to know who you are, and what you do, and why you do it. You need to share your expertise and your knowledge in order to build a personal reputation that will help you get the next job, or if you’re freelance the next client.
It’s not just a trivial thing of, “Oh, where are the women?” The issues is that if women aren’t getting on stage at these events, then they aren’t getting the benefit of becoming that public speaker. They’re not building their personal brand. They’re not developing that reputation as someone that you want to hire, that you want to have on board.
So it’s a significant issue, this lack of visibility of women.
Moving beyond asking women what they’re wearing…
So often in the media when people talk about women in tech it’s all focused on how they balance their family life and what their work ethic is, what they wear and how well they can cook, and that stuff drives me crazy. It’s completely irrelevant. I don’t find it all that compelling to know what an interview subject, male or female, is wearing. It’s irrelevant to me.
It is very mismatched – questions are asked of women that aren’t asked of men. No-one asks men how they balance their family life with their careers, and that’s to the detriment of men as well because the assumption is that they don’t have balance, the assumption is that they’re focused 100% on their careers.
This is extremely problematic for men who have families and want to spend a decent amount of time with them, who want to be home to read their kids a bedtime story. They have everything to lose as well from this mismatched set of expectations around careers and family.
Telling the stories of the women in tech we don’t know and we don’t hear about
So the first Ada Lovelace Day was a day of blogging about women in tech. The idea was that if we write about women in tech, then we will start to hear women’s stories, start to learn who these people are, learn what they’ve done and where they work. We can create some new role models by talking about women’s achievements. Almost immediately it broadened out to women in STEM, so that first year, people were talking about Marie Curie.
You think, “Marie Curie – great. Definitely an exciting kind of woman.” She was the only person to get two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines, but, technically I think, not in tech! But that’s fine and, to some extent, I’ve gone where the community has pushed me, so as soon as people started writing about scientists and engineers, you immediately think, “The need for this is broader than just technology. The desire from the community is that it should be more than just about technology, so that’s what we’ll do.”
It’s grown every year and some years it’s been a struggle to keep up. It has been really difficult to do everything that I needed to do for the day at the same time as running my own social technology consultancy.
I went full time this year thanks to a couple of really awesome sponsors and so now I’m focusing on the day and expanding our work, and hopefully next year expanding our sponsorship. In an ideal world, I’d like to raise enough to hire not just admin support, but a historian and a graphic designers as well!
Part one: Ada Lovelace Day Live
There are three elements to the day. The first one is Ada Lovelace Day Live, which is a science cabaret that we hold in London each year, and we get seven or eight women in STEM to talk about their work, talk about other women in STEM. This year we’re being hosted very generously by Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. That’s an evening event. Tickets are £20 for general entry, £5 for concessions.
I love the Ada Lovelace Day Live event because I get to meet some amazing women doing fantastic work and secondly it’s all about shining a light on what women are doing and so it gives us this opportunity to hear about the projects and research that’s happening right now.
This year we are very lucky in that Slack (a team communications tool) is sponsoring a number of free tickets for schools and youth groups or families and individuals for whom the cost of a ticket would otherwise be prohibitive. We do our best to be as inclusive and accessible as possible and being able to serve groups that might otherwise not be able to afford the price of general tickets is fantastic. I love the fact that Slack have engaged with us and allowed that to happen.
So Ada Lovelace Day this year is going to be fantastic. We’ve got Abbie Hutty, who is an engineer on the Mars Rover, nanochemist Dr. Suze Kundu, neuroscientist Professor Uta Frith, Emmy nominated and BAFTA award winning science TV producer Ruth Roberts, as well as Professor Elaine Chew, who is a musician and mathematician, and our compére Helen Arney. It’s going to be absolutely fantastic. I’m really excited about it, as always. I’m speaking too, this year, about Ada Lovelace herself.
Part two: Independent events all around the world (…including Antarctica!)
The second thing is the independent events that people put on all around the world. This started spontaneously – I didn’t plan that, it just grew organically. People just started putting on their own Ada Lovelace Day events.
Last year we had 65 events on five continents. This year we are looking for over 100 events on all seven continents, which is a big ask, but we’ve already got the British Antarctic Survey doing an event from the Halley Research Station in Antarctica, which is stupendously exciting as well as events in Nigeria, Brazil and Nepal.
Anybody can put on an Ada Lovelace Day event, and you can pretty much do whatever you fancy. We have an organiser’s pack on the website, which gives people some inspiration from the events other people have done. We have a very loose set of guidelines that explains why Ada Lovelace Day exists and the kinds of things we’re looking for people to do.
Really it’s about if your event celebrates or supports women in STEM, then you’re good to go. People do everything from Wikipedia edit-a-thons, where people come along and edit Wikipedia, with a focus on improving pages about women in STEM. We get hack days, so people come together to make apps, software, games and all sorts of things. We get some very academic and serious conferences. We get pub quizzes. It really is whatever your local community would enjoy.
So far we’ve got nearly 60 events in the database already, in 10 countries over six continents. Normally there’s a big flood of stuff that comes in at the end of September, so I’m really hoping this year that we can hit our hundred events milestone. We just need people Australia to get on board and we’ll hit our seven continent target!
Part three: Educations pack, resources and book
We’ve also got an education pack, which is sponsored by ARM, which is for Key Stage 3 students (so 11-14) and we’re going to launch that on Ada Lovelace Day (October 13th), so that’s resources for teachers to help them to understand more clearly how to help girls that are interested in STEM.
Some of the resources are around teaching STEM itself, but some of them on looking at the cultural issues that women and girls face, and looking at how we can encourage students to think differently about what a scientist is and what a scientist does. We examine how gender is used in marketing in a way that is actually very manipulative and does not have children’s best interests at heart.
We also have a book coming out – an anthology of essays about women in STEM and that includes some fantastic writing, by absolutely amazing women in their own right.
Amazing women of WWII – figuring out how to take off and land (literally) on the fly
One of my favourites is the story of the Air Transport Auxiliary, a group of women in the Second World War who ferried planes around, because all the men were off fighting in the war. They sometimes didn’t have time to read the manual for the new planes that they were flying, so they’d figure out how to take off and then figure out how to land it en route! That is bravery. That’s amazing.
Florence Nightingale – less about nursing and more about statistics
We’ve got a chapter about Florence Nightingale – less about nursing and more about statistics as she was a very accomplished statistician and she invented the polar area diagram, which is a form of pie chart. So she’s often written about as this almost angelic figure who was all about nursing – she is certainly responsible in part for the professionalisation of nursing, but that’s not her whole story.
And we’ve got a chapter about Mary Anning the fossil hunter, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace’s tutor, and the women who programmed the ENIAC, one of the early computers. Called More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, it’s going to be out on the 13th October.
More about Ada, the woman herself
Ada Lovelace is a really interesting figure. When I started with the idea I’d do this day about women in technology I was a bit stuck for a name for it because A Day of Blogging About Women in Technology is not exactly snappy! So a friend of mine said, “You need to name it after Ada Lovelace.” And I said, “Who is Ada Lovelace?” I’d never heard of Ada Lovelace! So I went away and looked her up online and thought, “Actually, she is really awesome.”
She was the first computer programmer. She was the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke, Baroness Wentworth. Annabella was incredibly intelligent, herself trained in science and mathematics. She loved maths – Byron called her his “Princess of Parallelograms”.
Maths and science to counter poetic tendencies
Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and Annabella was, as biographer Julia Markus says, a “very good girl determined to save the very bad man”. Their marriage was short and unhappy, and the two split up when Ada was only a month old. Annabella was deeply concerned about the state of Ada’s mental health, as we could call it now, she was really scared Ada would develop these ‘poetic tendencies’ of her father. So she had her schooled in maths and science.
Ada loved it. She just soaked it up like a sponge. She started writing a book called ‘Flyology’ about flying machines. She was an incredibly curious, intelligent girl and when she was 17 she met Charles Babbage, who was an inventor and mathematician, and it was like a meeting of the nerds. They just got on like a house on fire.
Writing the first computer programme
Babbage was working on a thing called the Difference Engine, which was going to be a mechanical calculator that could produce flawless calculations. He never finished that project – he got distracted by his idea for a thing called the Analytical Engine, a mechanical general purpose computing machine. Ada was just captivated by it. She came to know it as well as Babbage, and she wrote to be what many people, including myself, consider to be the first computer programme to calculate Bernoulli numbers. She broke down the formulae into simple steps and then described how those could be coded onto punched cards which could then be run through the Analytical Engine to produce the Bernoulli numbers.
Writing programmes by working entirely theoretically
Now the action of running these punched cards through the Analytical Engine never happened, because Babbage never built the Analytical Engine, and in fact he never properly finished the plans for it. I think that makes her achievement all the more astonishing, because we’re talking about a woman who is working entirely theoretically. Modern programmers can test their programmes. They can find the errors, the bugs. They can hunt them down and correct them, and improve and iterate.
Ada had to work from first principles – she had to think about how this machine would work and so what she would need to do in order to get these Bernoulli numbers calculated. However, to me, that’s not the most important part of her achievement. Because she was so far ahead of her time she understood that a general purpose computing machine could do more than just calculate big tables of numbers.
Now for Babbage this was all about calculating logarithm tables and trigonometry tables, so that computers [at the time this meant people who computed] could do complex calculations error free, and that was his main focus. Ada on the other hand saw that given the right data and the right algorithm, a machine like the Analytical Engine could do very human things. It could for example, create original pieces of music, as she put it, “…of any extent or complexity…”
Seeing the potential of computing
That’s a concept that was so phenomenally ahead of its time. She realised that such a machine could create graphics, art. So she really envisaged the calculating machine, the Analytical Engine, this computer, in a similar way to modern computers. She saw its potential at a time that the majority of machinery that people would see would be clockwork. Clocks tell you the time because time is regular and so all you need to do is have a discrete number of cogs and if they’re in the right place, and you keep winding, it will keep ticking forever.
There were also things called automata. These were clockwork machines that were made to imitate life, but again they could only perform a specific set of actions. They could only do what their cogs said they could do, whereas the Analytical Engine could calculate things that humans hadn’t calculated first, and that was an important distinction, that the Analytical Engine could produce an answer without having been told what the answer was. That was massive.
100 years ahead of her time
Ada realised this and she realised what that opened up. She realised that you could use symbolic logic to programme a computer of the type that Babbage had devised, and for me that makes her amazing. It doesn’t really matter to me that she never got to test her software. The fact that she had this amazing vision of what computing could be really put her strides ahead of her peers.
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a direct relationship between modern computing and either Babbage or Lovelace, but they were working easily 100 years ahead of their time, both of them, so I think they’re both astonishing, but Ada especially so.
Not the kind of criticism we level at male inventors, mathematicians or scientists
She gets criticism for various things and I find that a little frustrating because some of the criticism she gets is not the kind of criticism we level at male inventors, mathematicians or scientists. It’s the same with Marie Curie.
There was a documentary about Curie I watched recently and it opens with the scandal around the fact that she, after her husband’s death, had an affair with one of his students who was married. Now I don’t recollect the last time I saw a serious documentary about a male scientist that opened with some kind of issue around his love life. It just doesn’t happen, whereas women are expected to be purer than pure.
Not enough of a sacrifice..?
It’s not enough for some people that Curie discovered two elements and took mobile X-ray machines into the First World War, and did all of this amazing work, and died because of it. Apparently that’s not enough of a sacrifice! She has to be pure of heart as well. You see it again with Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale was a statistician and a very good statistician, and a campaigner and a lobbyist, and yet she is repeatedly described as this almost angelic woman whose sole focus is caring for soldiers. She did care and she did an awful lot of work to improve soldiers’ survival prospects in the Crimean War, but to ignore her much more political, mathematical activity is to do her a huge disservice.
It’s the same with Ada. They focus is on whether or not she had an affair and as far as I’m aware the evidence on that isn’t categorical. They focus on whether or not she understood calculus. Now Charles Dodgson, who most people know as Lewis Carroll, he said he didn’t understand calculus either and no-one turns round and says: “Well Charles Dodgson was a terrible mathematician because he didn’t understand calculus.”
Nothing wrong with being an assertive woman
It’s like people describing her personality as ‘aggressive’. So was she ‘aggressive’ or was she ‘assertive’? We know from research that women are judged more harshly when that behave in what is considered a ‘masculine’ way, so where a man is seen as ‘assertive’, a woman is seen as ‘aggressive’. Where strong leadership is seen as positive in a man, it’s seen as being ‘bossy’ in a woman.
So there’s all this molass of Victorian and modern cultural accretions around Ada and you have to ignore a lot of that and get to the heart of why she is such a good role model. She was absolutely brilliant in her understanding of the analytical engine, she was visionary. She put up with a lot of flak from a lot of people and even now her contributions are for some still apparently a matter for debate. But there are so many women that just look at Ada and go, “Yup. I can relate to that! I can see that. I understand that. I’ve experienced that.”
I couldn’t think of a better role model at all than Ada.