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portrait of Ada Lovelace - women in STEM

In our blog for Ada Lovelace Day, Becky Franklin finds out more about the 'enchantress of numbers' and why we need more female pioneers like her.

The 8th October is Ada Lovelace Day.

If you are like me, you may have seen a Google Doodle about her in the past, but really, you may not know anything about her. For me she was somewhat of an enigma.

In some ways, it is fitting for what she represents – a mathematician, an early pioneer of computer science. A female.

Yet, she was vital to the history of computers and, only now are we starting to appreciate and celebrate her enormous contribution to the modern world.

So, why do we know so little about her?

If you want to find out and understand her relevance to the debate today, read on.

A quick life of Ada

Ada Bryon, as she was called, was born in 1815 into high society London. Her parents were Annabella Milbanke and famed poet Lord Byron. Her mother enforced a strict education so as not to follow the fanciful route of her father.

At age 17, Ada met Charles Babbage; a Cambridge mathematician. Babbage believed it was possible to build a machine create values and calculate results – removing human error. He named this machine the Difference Engine. It was the sketches and writings of the Difference Engine that Ada saw and ignited her interest.

Over the next few years, Ada was encouraged, by her husband and Babbage, to teach mathematics and help develop the idea of the Difference Engine.

Their work, which has been well documented in a trail of letters, developed into the Analytical Engine (a machine that could not only calculate numbers but process information). Afterwards, Ada wrote a clear exposition on this machine. She never got to see the results of her work as she died at 36 years of age. While Charles Babbage tried to get their work recognised, it was not until after they both had died, that the significance of her writings was realised.

Laying the foundations for computing

In one of her letters Ada documents a comprehensive understanding and explanation of the Bernoulli numbers; these form part of the algorithm used even today to programme a computer. Her use of the Bernoulli numbers was one of the first indications that computer programming was possible.

Ada’s exposition of the Analytical Engine was on a scale never seen before; her knowledge and determination to seek ways of bettering herself seemed to be way beyond the times of 1843.

Most significantly, her writings provided the inspiration for Alan Turing’s work in computing and coding. Ultimately, she laid the foundations of modern-day computing.

But what I found the most interesting was that even in the 19th century, Babbage did not want a woman’s name on his work. Insistent her name appeared; Ada settled for AAL on their writings.

So why is this relevant?

Ada’s contribution went largely unnoticed at the time and even the work to promote it did not bear her real name. Women in science were invisible. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries have often not been accommodating or a pleasant environment for women. According to theWISE campaign, women make up only 22% of the STEM workforce. Last year, even a prominent scientist claimed that “physics was invented by men.”

With such great role models like Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and, of course, Ada Lovelace, why is there such slow progress for women in STEM?

Why are there still few women in STEM today?

Just as in Ada’s day, there is still inequality within STEM careers. There is also the issue of the ‘leaky pipeline,’ which represents the idea that while women do have an interest in STEM subjects they do not stay in the field.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias against women starts at a young age. It has been reported in many studies in which researchers have looked at what young children want to be when they grow up that, around ages six and seven, both girls and boys aspire to be doctors, astronauts and scientists. It is well documented that societal surroundings reinforce gender stereotypes. Girls learn to accept, wrongly of course, that boys are better at maths and science.

In my experience, this concept is exacerbated at school with few famous females being used to represent scientific success. In entertainment, there is an underrepresentation of female equivalents of David Attenborough; and it's widely reported that there is not enough effort to recruit female research scientists. It is not as though we have a lack of talent, as Ada’s legacy has proven.

What can we do to improve the legacy and representation of females in STEM?

From our own research we know that changing business culture, increasing female role models, and introducing flexible working will improve women’s representation in the workforce.

Yet, why do businesses fail to put in place these changes?

I think, ultimately, these changes take time and money – there is no quick fix. Perhaps, two things many companies just don’t have. But the investment pays for itself in the long-run; a 2014 study by MIT found that when teams are split evenly along gender lines, this could increase revenue by 41%.

If I have learnt anything from Ada’s life and writings, it is that women should never let male colleagues take credit for their achievements. Women are fully capable of achieving greatness in science by themselves.

This year’s A-Level results are testament to that as 5,000 more girls took STEM subjects. What a result!