Who Was Ada Lovelace, And How Far Have We Come Since Her Day?

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, named for the woman often credited with being the world’s first computer programmer. More than 150 years after her death, she remains an inspiring figure — and a reminder of why women still have so far to go when it comes to STEM careers.

The story of Lovelace’s programming milestone begins with her friend, inventor Charles Babbage, who had an idea for an “analytical engine” but had never actually built it. Lovelace, a young math whiz and the daughter of well-known poet Lord Byron, translated an article about Babbage’s theoretical machine in her mid-20s. Then she added notes of her own that included a breakthrough algorithm interpreted today as the first-ever computer program. Babbage’s invention would no be built until years later, after Lovelace’s death from cancer at age 36, but she’s recognized as somehow who not only wrote a program but understood that computer could do more than crunching facts and figures.

Suw Charman-Anderson, a social technologist, journalist and writer, publicized the first Ada Lovelace Day two years ago, when she was exasperated by “the tech industry’s continual excuses regarding the lack of women speakers at conferences.” She designated October 7 a day to “raise 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.” Her inspiration came from a 2006 study by psychologist Penelope Lockwood that found that women rely on female role models more than men need male role models.

Lockwood’s study asked male and female students to read a fictional news story about a successful professional in the field they hoped to someday work in. Some stories were about professional women, others about professional men. Afterwards, the female survey subjects were much more affected by reading the stories than they male subjects were. Women who read about women rated themselves more positively than the women who read about men, while men didn’t seem affected by reading about men or women. In a second survey, male and female students were asked about their real-life role models; both groups tended to choose role models of the same gender, but only the women said they made their choice because they were specifically inspired by the “gender-related obstacles” confronted by their chosen role model. In other words, the women benefited from exposure to inspiring women.

In other words: Female role models matter. As Lockwood put it in her paper, “Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success,” she said, “illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”

The numbers on women employed in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — are still discouraging. A recent report based on the latest statistics from the Census Bureau finds that even though the number of STEM jobs available is increasing, the percentage of women in those fields is holding steady at about 25%. Women make up 48% of the workforce overall.

Sure enough, that report lists “lack of female role models” as part of the problem. Thanks to Ada Lovelace, we have at least one more out there.

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