Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

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Don’t be like Ada

Today, the 10th October is Ada Lovelace day — a day designed to highlight female role models in STEM fields. Lack of visible role models may be one reason why comparatively few women who do well in these subjects at school go on to study them at university and use them in their careers.

This is a very complex issue with no single, easy solution, but on Ada Lovelace day, the organisers hope we will “shine a light on the women in STEM that we admire” and tell others about the amazing work being done by women.

I want to do something a little different today. I wanted to talk a bit about Ada, her history and why I believe we all need to both be like Ada and not be like Ada.

About Ada

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was given the moniker “The Enchantress of Numbers”, by her colleague Charles Babbage on account of her skill and “mathematical powers”. He described her as

“that Enchantress 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”.

What a beautiful description, which for me resonates all the more as it feels like Babbage believes Ada’s being a woman added to her capabilities — rather than detracting from them, or marking her as less able, in a time when there were even fewer women in the sciences than there are now.

Her mother, Annabella Milbanke, loved maths and dedicated her education to one rooted in maths and science, alongside Ada’s natural love of machines which manifested itself throughout her childhood. The primary reason for this was to keep her away from poetry and the arts — her mother didn’t want to see her end up like her father, Lord Byron. Despite this, Ada described herself as an “analyst and metaphysician”, working on “poetical science” — using poetry to validate her mathematical thinking and help remove doubt.

She died of cancer at the age of 36 — a huge loss given the contribution she made to STEM in her lifetime and the impact her work has had since her passing. What did she do?

She was fascinated by Babbage’s plans for the Analytical Engine — a machine that, had it been built, would have contained the same essential elements as any modern-day computer — utilising punchcards to operate it. Babbage delivered a lecture about this machine that was written up in French. Ada translated this document into English and in doing so, added huge amounts of additional insight:

  • She explained in detail the functions of the machine and what it could do — believing it capable of far more than just maths
  • She wrote the first ever algorithm in these notes (explaining how to calculate ‘Bernoulli numbers’) — making her the first ever computer programmer
  • She also explained the potential issues with the machine — foreseeing the need to do what would later become known as ‘debugging’
  • The work that she and Babbage did together, but in particular her notes were hugely important to Alan Turing and the work he did with computers 100 years later

Unfortunately this document and her work attracted no attention during her lifetime. In addition to her impact on Turing’s work, her notes were extensively republished in the 1950s and in 1980 the US Department of Defense named their new computer language “Ada” in her honour.

Don’t be like Ada

It goes without saying that having Ada’s impact on the world is something for us all to aspire to. What’s unspeakably sad though, is how her work went undiscovered for a hundred years — something that feels all too common with what we see today, where women have to have their ideas voiced by men for them to be heard and where our gender is all-too-often viewed as something that makes us less capable.

While it doesn’t come naturally to any of us to talk about the amazing things we do, we need to try. Rather than ascribing our achievements to “being lucky” (something I’m guilty of myself), we need to be proud of our hard work and shout about it from the rooftops. If you’re not comfortable doing that, then do it for the other women around you — it can be easier to highlight the achievements of others than it can be to talk about ourselves.

Rather than worry about losing our seat at the table to other brilliant women, we need to put a ladder down and help other women get to where we are, and beyond. Having a support network to help you in this can make all the difference. There’s so many groups out there, from Lean In to smaller groups focused on specific niches on Facebook that can be avenues that you can turn to for encouragement and inspiration.

At She Does Digital we’re keen to draw attention to the brilliant women working in digital and the great work they do as well as the broad spectrum of roles available within our sector. We’d like to encourage you to take five minutes today to think about Ada, your own achievements and those of the women around you. If you don’t feel up to talking about something you’ve achieved recently, then get onto social media and highlight someone you feel deserves to be recognised for their work.

Let’s make sure that nobody has to wait 100 years for their contributions to be recognised! We’d love to hear about the women you admire on Twitter using #shedoesdigital.