Every year since 2009, on the second Tuesday of October, the world celebrates Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace is widely regarded as being the world’s first computer programmer, and the day aims to raise the profile of women in STEM by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating ‘new’ role models.
How did the Ada Lovelace Day come about?
From the Finding Ada website:
The inspiration for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who carried out a study which found that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models. “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.”
So, in the tenth year of celebrations – do we really need an Ada Lovelace Day?
In a time when people can seriously suggest that ‘separate labs for boys and girls’ might be a good way to stop women crying (biochemist Tim Hunt in 2015), and others are claiming that entire scientific subjects (in this case physics) was ‘invented and built by men’ (researcher Alessandro Strumia just a few weeks ago), it is perhaps unsurprising that I think we need Ada Lovelac Day now more than ever. Though I do have a few caveats..
For Ada Lovelace Day
The general ethos behind Ada Lovelace Day is something that I completely agree with – we should be encouraging people to talk about women working in STEM subjects, and we should be working specifically to highlight their achievements. That’s not because women should be celebrated more than men; it’s because the achievements of men are already being highlighted and celebrated, and they have been for decades.
A total of 209 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics since 1901; only 3 of those were women. One of those women was Dr Donna Strickland who won the award this year, the first woman to do so in 55 years. You might think that demonstrates a step forward – and perhaps in some ways it does, but if at all, it is a tiny, tiny step. To put things into perspective, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia profile at the time of the prize’s announcement.
A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was rejected by a moderator with the message, “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” It was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page. Think that through. This fantastically talented woman did not have a Wikipedia page because of her lack of internet presence.
Strickland said the achievements of women scientists deserved recognition. “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. I’m honored to be one of those women“, Strickland said by video link at a news conference following the announcement in Stockholm.
Strickland is just one example of the problems that riddle STEM subjects; women are underrepresented and undervalued in comparison to their male peers. Ada Lovelace Day encourages people to find out about women in STEM, and that is a brilliant thing.
Against Ada Lovelace Day
Ada Lovelace Day may be focussed on highlighting the achievements of all women in STEM, but the fact that the day is named after Ada Lovelace is troubling for me.
Ada Lovelace, born Ada Gordon in 1815, was the only child of erratic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his mathematics-loving wife Annabella Milbanke. Ada had a hugely privileged upbringing; she was raised under a strict regimen of science, logic and mathematics. As a young girl she was fascinated with machines, immersing herself in the pages of scientific magazines of the time in order for her to learn more about the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution. At 19, she married aristocrat William King, when King was made Earl of Lovelace in 1838 his wife became Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Hence why she is generally called Ada Lovelace.
Lovelace moved in affluent circles, she was introduced to Charles Babbage at the age of just 18. Babbage was a celebrity of the time, and the mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer originated the concept of a digital programmable computer. Babbage 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,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
Clearly, Ada Lovelace was lucky – she lived relatively easy life moving in wealthy circles that enabled her to succeed. By highlighting that I am not taking away her talent, but it’s not difficult to deduce what may have happened to a person of a different socioeconomic class or ethnicity with just the same level of talent and determination. The thing that differentiates Ada Lovelace from others is privilege; her white-ness, her wealth, and her connections.
We are still living in a world where white middle class women are getting more attention that other women. Ask someone to name a female scientist and I’d put money on that woman being white, likely English-speaking, and probably from a pretty middle class background.
In one of Soph Talks Science’s Scientist in the Spotlight interviews Meriame explained, “whenever I give a talk, one of the most common questions I get asked is where are you from?, which when I answer West London, is then followed by but where are you actually from.” That is beyond ridiculous; why does it matter where Meriame is ‘really’ from, whatever that means? Would these people ask white women the same question? I’d guess not.
Ada Lovelace Day contributes to the continuing problem of exclusion of people of colour; let’s highlight all achievements, so how about we change things and rename the second Tuesday in October Maggie Aderin-Pocock Day, Asima Chatterjee Day, Dorothy Vaughan Day, Susan La Flesche Picotte Day, Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day, Nergis Mavalvala Day, Adriana Ocampo Day, or Mae Jemison Day?
What do you think; are you for or against Ada Lovelace Day? Leave a comment below and explain why – I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂