Why Ada Lovelace Day is important for women in tech

The number of women in tech is still much lower than the number of men in the industry with many highlighting issues such as lack of mentors, lack of role models and imposter syndrome as factors preventing the uptake of tech roles for women.

Ada Lovelace day, named after the British mathematician who is said to have invented the first example of a computer programme, is seen as an opportunity to celebrate some of the current women in tech and hope showcasing them will encourage others into the industry in the future.

But in 2017 Ada Lovelace Day was also World Mental Health Day and World Porridge Day, and in the new social media era people can get a bit tired of constantly celebrating and hearing about different issues – but having a reason to shine the light on women in the technology industry is vitally important.

A number of girls claim they would like to see more roles models in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) and not having people in front of you in a particular career path can perpetuate negative stereotypes surrounding certain jobs, leaving girls thinking these careers are not for them.

As diversity advocate and president of TechUK Jacqueline De Rojas has repeated many many times: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Many initiatives now exist to try and make young people aware of tech role models, for example Modern Muse, Stemettes and Code First: Girls  as well as others to showcase women in tech – In October 2017 Computer Weekly showcased its annual list of the top 50 women in UK tech to celebrate women in the industry.

Debbie Forster, CEO of not-for-profit Tech Talent Charter, explains it is important to look at the women at the origins of tech, as well as those “at the top of the pyramid” but that days like Ada Lovelace Day bring women out of the woodwork who might represent “the next step” for some others in tech.

She says: “Not seeing any women kills confidence, but equally so can seeing someone at the very top. We as women often think ‘that’s someone who is exceptional that’s not me’.”

Days like Ada Lovelace Day that encourage women to talk about their tech careers and connect with each other reminds those in the industry they “can be role models to someone who is adjacent” to them and give them confidence they need to make the next step.

But gender split isn’t the only issue in the technology industry, with other minority groups very minimally represented.

Forster claims, like many, that diversity as a whole is important and can be achieved by focussing on smaller segments – once these improve, other areas improve as well.

She says: “When companies develop proactive things that encourage gender diversity it opens the door for different kind of people as well.”

For some organisations it can be difficult to focus on more than one arm of diversity or you end up trying to “boil the ocean”.

Wider initiatives such as Ada Lovelace Day allow more  people to be involved, making the messages more widespread, Forster says the day “provides a moment to pause and look around” at the other women in the industry and re-assess the issue.

As women commonly do not self-promote, days like Ada Lovelace Day help to put women in the spotlight where they may otherwise not be recognised, and Nicola Deas, practice leader at Right Management, says: “It is vital that we encourage women to realise their potential, develop new skills and have meaningful career conversations with their employers to drive their career forward. Only then can we readdress the imbalance and celebrate gender equality.”

Initiatives should not disappear from the spotlight once Ada Lovelace Day ends, and Deas believes companies should take it upon themselves to empower female employees, and do their best to embed a diverse culture in organisations.

Becky Plummer, senior software engineer at Bloomberg explains that shifting the internal culture of an organisation is one of the best ways of increasing and retaining diversity in the industry.

It is also important that in this internal culture people are recognised and praised because of their skills, and not singled out for their gender – something the industry still has to work towards.

Plummer says: “Ada Lovelace should not be celebrated as a successful woman in technology but simply as a pioneer in software engineering. That distinction is really important and it’s one we need to apply more often in today’s tech industry. I am not a successful female software engineer; I’m a successful software engineer who also happens to be a woman.”

Eventually once diversity is the norm in the industry, this will be the case.

Using days such as Ada Lovelace Day to encourage conversation surrounding women in tech encourages different types of people in the industry to come forward and begin to break down the long standing stereotypes surrounding the types of people in the tech industry and what roles in the sector involve.

Sophie Deen, creator of children’s book series Detective Dot and founder and CEO of Bright Little Labs, claims Ada Lovelace is a perfect example of someone who broke down stereotypes to pursue science and tech, and shows that tech and creativity go hand-in-hand.

Deen says: “What I love about Ada is how she combined creativity with science, viewing computers and poetry as complementary not distinct. I don’t think science and art are two isolated schools of thought, and neither did Ada.”

Again, Deen claims gender should not matter when presenting role models, and the culture in the industry should shift towards showcasing the best and most inspiring people in tech – once the industry is more diverse we won’t need to single out specific groups.

Deen says: “Being a role model should not be gender specific, Lovelace can inspire us all to be better advocates of science.”

Every day seems to hail another focus at the moment – shortly following Ada Lovelace Day were International Day of the Girl and World Sight Day – but as much as we seem to be bombarded with food for thought, these reminders can be important to raise awareness of particular issues and speed up change.

By Clare McDonald, Business Editor, ComputerWeekly.com - Why Ada Lovelace Day is Important