Why Tech Needs More Women?

24th April 2020 | Reading time: 10 min
By Rakesh Singh

women in tech
Source: Pexels


recently came to know that women were involved from the very beginning of the programming. Some known and some unknown, but the life and work of one women known as the 'the first computer programmer' is what captured my attention the most. You might have heard her name if you belong to a computer science background. Her name was 'Ada Lovelace', in full, Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace. She was the daughter of a mad and prominent poet Lord George Gordon Byron with an unstable personality (shortly known as Lord Byron), who developed the first ever alogrithm for a computing machine in somewhere around mid 1800s but her life was a complete tragic.

Ada came into the world on 10th Decemeber 1815 in London and she was the only legitimate child of Annabella Milbanke, who was highly intelligent and had been well-educated by private tutors, and was particularly enthusiastic about mathematics and the sciences and the famous poet Lord Byron. From an early age, it became crystal clear that Ada was a bright, talented and gifted girl. Unlike other aristocratic girls in 1800s, Ada was being taught science and maths at a great depth where she revealed her gift for mathematics. But in 19th century, these subjects and fields were deemed too challenging for women but her mother insisted that by learning such subject would prevent her from becoming selfish and ignorant like her father. And later on she was to be taught by one of the finest minds of her time including a social reformer and mathematician who was also one of the first member of Royal Astronomical Society.

ada lovelace
Portrait Of Ada Lovelace

When Ada was just learning how to walk on her feet, her father abandoned his wife and daughter and left Britain forever unbeknownst to them and died in Greece when Ada was just a month old. Ada never saw him. Then Lady Byron, i.e Ada's mother, seemed to have had no or little affection for her daughter and the young girl was raised up by her maternal grandparents and servants. Her grandmother passed away when she was eight.

A Computer Scientist & Mathematician

It may appear a little odd to call someone born in 1815 a programmer or a computer scientist, but that's what she became. On June 5, 1833, when she was just 17, her extraordinary life changed forever. It was the day when she met Charles Babbage.

Back then, Babbage was a middle age guy and a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University Of Cambridge, a position once held by Isaac Newton and held more recently by Stephen Hawking. Babbage after meeting her, learned that her mother and daughter both were knowledgeable about mathematics and invited them to take a look on the small-version of self calculating machine called the difference engine he was working on as he was fed up by correcting the mistakes of the people working on it because his aim was to build an infallible calculating machine. His unique concept enthralled her completely. Now her story of becoming a computer scientist began.

Initially, she knew that there was only a little she could do to help Babbage on his machine. So she sent a letter requesting him to send the copies of machine's blueprint as she was captivated by his work and wanted to learn how the machine worked - and he agreed.

Leaving A Legacy Behind

Because of her innate passion for machines, she continued to pursue her mathematical knowledge and also became friends with with one of the finest female mathematician of her time, Mary Somerville, who discussed modern mathematics and set her up for more higher and complex problems and also explained Babbage's difference engine to her in detail.

Two years later, i.e in 1835, Ada got married to King William, who was about to become the Earl Of Lovelace after three years. Both shared the love of horses and became parents of three. From most accounts, he supported his wife in academic endeavors. Ada and her husband socialized with many interesting minds of 1800s, including scientist Michael Faraday and writer Charles Dickens. In 1841, she began working on mathematics again. She started working over a task given by Professor Augustus De Morgan of University College London while she was learning advanced mathematics under the guidance of Mary Somerville but she kept Babbage's 'difference engine' in mind all the time.

In 1842, Ada heard of a paper called 'The Sketch Of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine', originally written and published by an engineer named Luigi Menabrea in French. Menabrea had listened and jotted down the lectures delivered by Charles Babbage. But by this time, he was onto a much bigger and newer version of his old calculating machine which would be capable of much more sophisticated calculations in very less amount of time. The analytical engine was completely a groundbreaking concept originated in Babbage's mind and it was the world's first programmable computer. No one knew that his machine would be described as Turing Machine in the upcoming modern time. It worked on an artihmetic logic operation, control flow statements and separate allocated memory and all of this was to be built by using mechanical parts and powered by hands or steam.

She was later asked to interpret and translate the paper in an English version. She not only translated the paper but she added her own original notes, thoughts and ideas into it on the machine. Her article ended up three times more longer than the published article and finally the article appeared in 1843 inside an English Science Journal. She only used the initials "A.A.L" from her name Augusta Ada Lovelace.

A couple of years after publishing the article, a bad news was to be heard knocking her doors. Her health had started deteriorating after completing the work on analytical engine and suffered many illness. She was in pain for last several years and was given opiates and consume alocohols to cope up with it, but those substance were damaging her from inside. And she died, probably of uterine cancer at the age of 36 on November 27, 1852.

In the end, she forgave her father for abandoning her as a baby and always believed that her mother was deliberately tried to turn her against her father. Ada's last wish was to be buried beside her father Lord Byron's grave at Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Huckhall, Nottingham. Her grave can be seen there even today.

Lord Byron wrote few lines right after abandoning his wife and baby daughter forever:

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!
Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart?
When last I saw thy young blue eyes, they smiled,
And then we parted, not as now we part,
But with a hope.

Her beautiful contributions were not discovered until 1950s. Her notes and article were again reintroduced and republished to the world by B.V Bowden in Faster Than Thought: A Symposium On Digital Computing Machine in 1953. Since then Ada has received many posthumous for her contribution in the field of computer science. Even the U.S. Department Of Defence named a newly developed language "Ada", after Lovelace. She left a legacy which is destined to continue forever.

But how did the technology became so male-dominated?

Various women have developed some of the most essential components of modern technology we still use today. The work of following six women have made a remarkable contribution in the field of science and technology.

Ada Lovelace: Created the first computer program.

Grace Hopper: Invented computing devices and methods, like the compiler.

Katherine Johnson: Lady who advanced the space exploration and received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015.

Margaret Hamilton: Worked on the development of Apollo 11 space shuttle and took human to moon.

Stephanie Shirley: Designed programs dedicated to studying impact on social media and ethical issues.

Megan Smith; Became first female chief technology officer of the U.S. and served White House until January 2017.

Women have the tendency to think differently and want to avoid mistakes as much as possible. They may even feel frustrated when their piece of work or code does not work. While most of the men are aware of the fact that learning is a trial-and-error process and see failure as a reflection of their skill. Because women gives higher priority to socializing and collaborating when it comes to selecting their careers, they may feel alienated until more women enter the field. Women need role models to keep themselves motivated. For instance, 70% of the students who took advance practice exam revealed that they want to work with technology or an IT based companies and women leave technology based company at twice the rate of men.

A report published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed that only 13% of the total PHDs in computer science went to women, although the report is about two decades old but the issues are still valid today since the number of female computer scientists has stagnated. Another recent data published by the Stanford University showed that only 23.5% of females are computer science graduates and UC Berkley has only 16.2% of them. Over the past thirty years or so, these numbers are used to be much higher. About only 37% of the computer science graduates were females but the now the number plunged to only 17.6%, according to to a report published in 2011.

I think it's the time to be open and talk about the human nature and psychology which could explain the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women. Maybe these differences may explain why we don't see the equal representation of women in technology and leadership. There are many responsible factors are at play but no concrete answer to this multi-faceted question. Technology has witnessed a steady growth of women entering wide range of professions including social services, law, medical sciences and computer science until 1984 and then something changed. The percentage of women opting and continuing with computer science field plummeted since then.

In addition to this, Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at The University Of California-Los Angeles and the author of 'Unlocking The Clubhouse' adduced that the introduction of personal computers as a "boys toy" in 1980s might be one of the factors that pushed more men than women into the computer science field. There is no doubt that advertisements we see via TV, radio or newspaper immensly influences our thought process and decision making abilities. One ad ran by Radio Shack showed that computers were a tool for white nerdy boys to doing their homework at home. In another ad ran by Apple proclaimed that how much a computer could help a boy named Brian Scott. But we hardly saw any girl or women in a leading role in those ads. The year 1980 was the beginning of personal computers, and which were mostly marketed to boys and men. Even though both the sexes has equal capacity to solve logical problems, but parents treated them differently. Computers were sold more frequently to boys than girls which eventually made them more comfortable when teacher started making students familiar to computers. A teacher greatly influences the decision-making ability of a student to opt and study computer science in future. For instance, those who receive positive reinforcement are three times more likely to opt for computer science and to make this impact possible, the window opens before age 14. That's why it is critically important for children to be exposed to computers while they are young.

Its not just about to keep hiring more women into a company but gender diversity hugely boosts the valuation and ranking of a company. Businesses with a women on the executive team are more likely to have a higher valuation at both the first and last funding.

The tech sectors need more women studying, working and sticking with tech skills to ensure there's enough talent for the future.

Breaking The Ice

While there's a little agreement regarding why only fewer women choose to become a computer scientist, but there are other popular theories as well. One theory suggest that their learning childhood isn't as technical as of men counterpart so they grew up with a false preconviced notion that science and technology are for men only. There one effective solution to overcome and improve the female participation is through enough encouragement of their skill and telent in the field of science and technology at and early age. And as the improvement can only be seen over a long run or more precisely; after a few decades. I think its time to focus on the next generation of tech talent and ensure that the gender diversity exist for the good of everyone.

As Janet Abbate, a professor of science and technology at Virginia Tech and author of Recoding Gender says, "this is not a field where new women are newcomers to but this a place where they have a history and belong."

P.S: The links throughout this article are worth exploring and if you liked this article, just let us know with a feedback.

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