Women in STEM – Ada Lovelace and the Birth of Computing

Ada Lovelace Day, 10th October 2023, is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

In this blog post, Design and Technology Director Pete Cripps discusses why Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, is as relevant today as she was then – and how her influence can inspire young women to pursue STEM subjects.  

Daughter of notable poet Lord Byron and keen mathematician Anabella Wentworth, Ada was tutored rigorously in mathematics and excelled in the field. Her exceptional abilities, combined with her family connections, earned her an invitation at the age of 17 to a London soirée hosted by Charles Babbage, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Babbage was elated to have found someone who shared his enthusiasm for his subject, and generously shared his plans and inventions with Ada.  

This included extending an invitation for her to collaborate with him on his “Analytical Engine”, a visionary contraption that boasted the radical notion of programmability. In 1842, Ada went on to write an ‘algorithm’ for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published algorithm (AKA computer program) ever! Although Babbage’s engine was too far ahead of its time and could not yet be built, Ada is still credited as being the world’s first computer programmer.   

Ada’s brilliance is evidence that she was good at working with what she didn’t have. Not only was Babbage unable to build his machine, meaning Lovelace never had one to play with, she also didn’t have male privilege or a formal education – something that was a scarce commodity for women – a stark reminder of the limitations imposed on her gender during that time.  

A model of Babbage’s first Analytical Engine.

Have we moved forward today from these limitations on women and young girls? A glimpse into the typical composition of a computer science classroom, be it at the secondary or tertiary level, might beg the question: Have we truly evolved beyond the gender constraints of the past? And if so, why does an imbalance persist in STEM fields?  

Over the past five or more years there have been many studies and reports published into the problem of too few women entering STEM careers, and we seem to be gradually focusing in on not just what the core issues are, but also how to address them. What seems to be lacking is the will, or the funding (or both) to make it happen.   

What can be done?

So, what to do? First, some facts:  

  1. Girls lose interest in STEM as they get older. A report from Microsoft back in 2018 found that confidence in coding wanes as girls get older, highlighting the need to connect STEM subjects to real-world people and problems by tapping into girls’ desire to be creative [3].    
  2. Girls and young women do not associate STEM jobs with being creative. Most girls and young women describe themselves as being creative and want to pursue a career that helps the world. They do not associate STEM jobs as doing either of these things.  
  3. Female students rarely consider a career in technology as their first choice. Only 27% of female students say they would consider a career in technology, compared to 61% of males, and only 3% say it is their first choice.   
  4. Most students (male and female) can’t name a famous woman working in technology. A lack of female role models is also reinforcing the perception that a technology career isn’t for them. Only 22% of students can name a famous female working in technology, whereas two thirds can name a famous man.  
  5. Female pupils feel STEM subjects, though highly paid, are not ‘for them’. Female Key Stage 4 pupils perceived that studying STEM subjects was potentially a more lucrative choice in terms of employment. However, when compared to male pupils, they enjoyed other subjects (e.g., arts and English) more.  

The solutions to these issues are now well understood:  

  1. Increasing the number of STEM mentors and role models – including parents – to help build young girls’ confidence that they can succeed in STEM. Girls who are encouraged by their parents are twice as likely to stay in STEM, and in some areas like computer science, dads can have a greater influence on their daughters than mums yet are less likely than mothers to talk to their daughters about STEM.  
  2. Creating inclusive classrooms and workplaces that value female opinions. It’s important to celebrate the stories of women who are in STEM right now, today.   
  3. Providing teachers with more engaging and relatable STEM curriculum, such as 3D and hands-on projects, the kinds of activities that have proven to help keep girls’ interest in STEM over the long haul.  
  4. Multiple interventions, starting early and carrying on throughout school, are important ways of ensuring girls stay connected to STEM subjects. Interventions are ideally done by external people working in STEM who can repeatedly reinforce key messages about the benefits of working in this area. These people should also be able to explain the importance of creativity and how working in STEM can change the world for the better.  

Future Steps

The rapidly evolving nature of AI and technology means we need people from as diverse a set of backgrounds as possible, and women must become essential players in this – not just in developing, but also in guiding and critiquing the adoption and use of this technology.  

On this, Ada Lovelace Day 2023, we should not just celebrate Ada’s achievements all those years ago but also recognize how Ada ignored and fought back against the prejudices and severe restrictions on education that women like her faced. Ada pushed ahead regardless and became a true pioneer and founder of a whole industry that did not actually really get going until over 100 years after her pioneering work. Ada, the world’s first computer programmer, should be the role model par excellence that all girls and young women to look to for inspiration not just today but for years to come.

Pete Cripps is Design and Technology Director of Digital Innovators.

Pete has over 40 years of experience in the computing industry, including 30 years working at IBM UK. At Digital Innovators, Pete is responsible for the design and delivery of the technical aspects of our training curriculum. He also provides overall guidance on technology for the business.

Published by Peter Cripps

Software architect, digital activist, blogger and photographer.

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