Ada Lovelace: Reflections for Women in STEM
Ada’s Life: What Can We Learn?
October 13this Ada Lovelace day. This woman pioneer in computer science lived a short life, born in 1812 and dying in 1852 at age 36 of uterine cancer. A client of mine asked me to give a talk about Ada Lovelace for their women’s employee resource group. As I learned more about her life, I was struck by how her brief life gives us clues for creating more equitable career pathways for women in technology. Her character, her family, and the societal norms of her day shaped both her achievements and the walls she could not climb. (Please note that the majority of information here comes from the book Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Christopher Hollings, Ursula Martin, and Adrian Rice, 2017. It’s a great read, highly recommended!)
Let’s look at what shaped Ada’s opportunities in the Victorian Age:
- Is curious. She read widely in many disciplines and her writing reflects the relationships she saw between the humanities, the arts, math, and science.
- Invests in her own growth. Ada worked hard at her craft, pushing hard to advance her math skills from algebraic formulas to calculus.
- Is funny. When Ada turned 20, Margaret Carpenter painted her portrait. Ada wrote, “I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw upon, upon which I the word Mathematics should be written.”
- Has grit. Ada was physically frail. At the age of 12, she was paralyzed by measles. It took her a year to learn to walk again.
- Fails forward. In some correspondence to a mentor, she wrote about the learning process, “I often gain more from the discovery of a mistake of this sorth, than from 10 acquisitions made at once and without any kind of difficulty.”
- Is very privileged. She is white and the daughter of Lord Byron, Britain’s most famous poet and part of the British aristocracy. Ada marries Count Lovelace, thus reinforcing her place in that aristocracy.
- Has a supportive mother. Lady Byron was a vocal advocate for education and insisted that Ada be taught mathematics.
- Has an extraordinary network. Family connections become Ada’s own network and open doors for her, including famous women scientists who become her friends.
British Society at That Time
- Is economically thriving. The invention of the steam engine and railroads is driving all new industries.
- Encourages science. Science has become highly popular topic for both men and women.
- Supports learning through play. Math games were highly popular, and Ada herself benefitted from experiential learning like examining dragonflies under a magnifying glass.
These components of Ada’s character, her family, and British society all helped Ada become who she did. At the same time, she encountered a lot of walls. Her father abandoned the family when Ada was born, and from all accounts, family dynamics were, well, complicated. Ada herself appears to have had a difficult marriage at age 20, and she bore three children over the next four years. College and advanced education were closed doors to women. All property and legal rights were given to the husband once a woman married, and were themselves effectively “property.” These are all walls Ada managed to climb over because of both her innate intelligence and grit and because her family’s wealth and place in society offered her extraordinary connections.
Applying Lessons Learned to Technology Pathways for Women
So what can we learn from Ada’s life that can inform how we create equitable pathways for women in technology? I had three takeaways:
- Create support networks of women in STEM. Yes, the adage “if you can see it, you can be it” holds true. Connecting girls and women directly to women in STEM gives them the opportunity to ask questions, freely discuss ideas, and share their experiences with someone who has had similar experiences. Ada’s friendships with Mary Somerville and Carolyn Herschel, female fellows for the Royal Astronomical Society, gave her access to female scientists who supported her endeavors.
- Sponsor. Ada had a powerful sponsor: Charles Babbage. His work on the Analytical Engine gave Ada the opportunity to publish her ground-breaking paper. He respected her work and, given the times, gave her acknowledgement and attribution for it. We need to find every opportunity to sponsor women, providing opportunities to lead at various levels, join the C Suite, or be the CEO.
- Provide time to learn new skills. Growth and development cannot be relegated to the back of an already 10 hour work day. We need to provide deliberate time for both women and men to refresh their skills and capabilities. Ada had time and support for developing advanced math skills—and she worked hard to develop them even well after she became the mother of three.
- Raise and promote. New technology can create enormous wealth for innovations teams and the company itself. Think about how women and men are assigned to tasks. Do they work on hard core computing problems leading to patents and stock options—or do they work supporting tasks like QA?
After publishing Note G, explaining how Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked, Ada continued pursuing scientific interests in agriculture, algebra, astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geometry, mathematics, mesmerism, and physiology, to name a few. Doron Swade, a museum curator and author specializing in the history of computing, leaves us with these words about Ada Lovelace’s extraordinary contribution to computing:
“Ada saw something that Babbage in some sense failed to see. In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number...What Lovelace saw...was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.”