Women Who Inspire: Ada Lovelace

For this fortnight, I have chosen Ada Lovelace as the inspirational woman to focus my article on. You may not have heard of her - neither had I! She was the first computer programmer and has become a figurehead for female involvement in STEM subjects and careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Women in STEM are vastly underrepresented: just 23% of employees who work in STEM careers are female. Therefore, it may become too easy to lose sight of women who were, and still are, forces to be reckoned with in the development of science and technology.

So, let’s hear more about her…

She was born in 1815 and her education and upbringing were largely privileged. She was permitted by her liberal academic parents, Lord and Lady Byron, to learn subjects that were usually exclusively for boys, such as maths and science. She first stepped into the public eye when she was asked to translate an article describing her mentor Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’. She added a commentary to the translation, showing her own independent thought and authority, and there was a good public reaction to her notes when they were published in 1843. However, the concepts she was using were very progressive and did not take flight for another century.

Essentially, Lovelace’s notes were the first computer algorithm which ultimately makes her the first computer programmer. Her work even inspired Alan Turing’s research into, and development of, the first modern computer during the 1940s.

Programming nowadays seems to be a significant part of society, particularly the workplace, although I have to admit I know very little about it (my excuse being I’m a humanities student!). The very idea that such an important societal development originated from a woman during a period in which female knowledge about these subjects was actively discouraged, is definitely something to celebrate.

You may be thinking why is she an inspiring and important figurehead today? I believe that Ada Lovelace provides an excellent example of how women can achieve great things when included in the discussion. Despite the fact that she had a privileged upbringing in that her access to education was open to her by means of her parents, her gender was an obstacle she had, and to some extent still has to face in terms of recognition and respect. Even just recently an important scientist stated: 'physics was invented and built by men', forgetting Lovelace and other female scientific figureheads.

Lovelace’s legacy is particularly applicable today because of the worrying numbers of girls and women learning or involved in STEM subjects and careers. Less than a third of A-Level maths students are women and less than 1% of those taking an A-Level in computer science are women.

Jess Wade, a British physicist based in London, says: 'We can all make efforts to make sure there are more people like Lovelace'. Practically, this means not allowing prejudice and stereotypes to stop others or yourself from being involved in any kind of work or ambition that you may aim for, whether it be science or not. This is particularly important advice for teachers and parents who will ultimately mould the biases of future generations. We need to encourage and commend diversity in science and technology, not only to encourage more women to be involved, but also to draw in other underrepresented and minority groups.

In other words, tell everyone around you: ‘yes you can and yes you will’.