Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The World's First Ada

Today is Ada Lovelace Day. The daughter of poet Lord Bryon, Ada is sometimes considered the world's first computer programmer. She was a mathematician who translated notes on Charles Babbage's analytical engine from Italian to English and included instructions for use, which could now be considered a computer program. The robust computer language used in avionics and the space industry is named after her: Ada.

So today I ask the question: why are there not more women in IT? The numbers of women in medicine and the sciences increase steadily with women now making up more than 50% of medical students. But, in my 15 years of working in IT, I am still the only woman at the conference, on the course, and sometimes the only woman on the floor! With the ladies toilets all to myself.

Well, I have a theory. And it's to do with culture, boys, gaming, comics, dungeons and dragons, and the massive tech industry that attracts boys while girls seem more interested in the external world. IT and specifically software development is enveloped in this boys world and from the age of about 10, girls probably feel that a career in IT means entering into this world.

Perish the thought. I'm not a gamer. I've never played dungeons and dragons (I used to leave my collage mates to it, down the back of the canteen), and I don't own any comics. I do however, love writing software. In school, when I was 17, we had a computer club after school hours and while I was indifferent to most subjects, that hour of messing about with a program, trying to get the results I wanted, I found exhilarating!

The stereotype is deserved. A career in IT does mean you can limit human contact and we do attract people whose social skills are not their strongest quality. But, the message that the outside world doesn't seem to be getting is that we have our gregarious types too. A career in IT can be highly sociable and involve travelling, meeting clients, and it's a very creative job. In fact, having met other people in IT, like myself, who also write, we agree that writing software and writing fiction are not worlds apart. There's huge scope in IT to carve out the role that you want. And that's not all! It also offers more flexibility than most jobs, is needed everywhere and can make for a highly lucrative career.

But we are suffering from a lack of diversity. Our workforce is made up of much of the same kind of people. That means that attitudes and work-cultures are not challenged the way they should be. What keeps women away is the same thing that they could solve.

That was theory 1. Here's theory 2:

I have a memory from my childhood of looking through one of my mum's magazines. There was a photo of an actress I recognised. She had big hair and was looking back over her shoulder at the camera. The caption read "Let's face it: A woman's brain just doesn't develop after the age of 35". In 2005, American economist Lawrence Summers gave a speech during a conference on science and diversity, and explained that a difference in "availability of aptitude" between men and women contributed to why women have not risen in scientific ranks. Studies have found physical differences between the typical male and female brain but, while analysing brain structure and activity is a matter of technology, analysing the significance of these results is entirely another matter. What if, for example, the performance of our complicated, malleable brains is related to confidence and identity - in other words, social conditioning? Subjects who participate in these studies come from the real world, influenced their whole lives by factors outside the controlled environment. So how can real world factors be ignored? Conclusions drawn in these conditions can only come from and reinforce existing prejudices. In this prevailing environment then I wonder if young women simply assume they wouldn't be great at programming. Even if they get exposed to it, with stereotypes hanging over them, how easy is it to be put off when a program refuses to work, and fall back on the stereotype? Maybe I'll try something with multitasking instead. I have one female colleague who started with us as a junior but has recently been promoted. She leaves her male peers for dust when it comes to showing an aptitude for logic and taking control of complex problems. Ah, how many more are like her and have not discovered their powers?

The solution: starts in school. Not that girls should have to enter the culture of programming and gaming with peers, but that computer programming should come into the classroom. Often maths and computing are put together under the branch, logic and I think people assume if they don't like maths then they wouldn't like programming. But actually an aptitude for maths is not the same as an aptitude for programming. I've never been particularly good at handling abstract numbers - don't ask me to figure out the bill - but there is a branch of mathematics called predicate logic which I loved in college and I don't see why it can't be taught in schools. If you like building logical statements, you'll like writing algorithms. Also, I think schools should have a programming class. What if kids learned how to write their own phone app, for example. How much fun does that sound??

Since poking around the internet to read about this subject, I have come across this great campaign agency, Lady Geek whose aim is to bridge the gap between women and the IT industry. Chief geek Belinda Parmar, has just published a book called Little Miss Geek to inspire young girls to become tech pioneers.

I leave you with this list of inspirational women who are tech pioneers and wish you all an analytically satisfying Ada Lovelace Day.

Grace Murray Hopper, developed the 1st compiler for a computer programming language, US Navy Rear Admiral, in 1973 became the 1st person from the USA and the 1st woman of any nationality to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, IEEE Fellow 1962 (1st woman awarded), Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award 1964

Cynthia Breazeal, pioneer of social robotics at MIT Media Lab, US Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigators Award

Rosalind W. Picard, credited with starting the entire field of Affective Computing, MIT Director of Affective Computing Research, IEEE Fellow 2005

Radia Perlman, the “Mother of the Internet,” 1st Sun Microsystems female Fellow, 1st Anita Borg Institute Woman of Vision – Innovation award winner 2005, IEEE Fellow 2008

Lynn Conway, Mead & Conway revolution in VLSI design, invention of generalized dynamic instruction handling, IEEE Fellow 1985, Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award 1990

Deborah Estrin, Professor of Computer Science UCLA, pioneer in the field of embedded network sensing and is the director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) at UCLA, Fellow IEEE 2004, ACM Fellow 2000, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007 Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Award for Innovation, WITI Hall of Fame 2008

Erna Schneider Hoover, as a researcher at Bell Laboratories, created a computerized switching system for telephone call traffic and earned one of the 1st software patents ever issued (1971), 1st first female supervisor of a technical department at Bell Labs

Mary Allen Wilkes, known for her work with the LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer), a 12-bit, 2048-word computer, considered the first minicomputer and a forerunner to the personal computer, at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory from 1959-1963. She simulated the LINC on the TX-2 computer, wrote many LINC operating systems, and designed the LINC console. During that time, she used a computer in her home, usually considered to be the first home computer user. As part of the Macromodular Systems Project at Washington University in St. Louis, she designed the multiply macromodule. She left computing to become an attorney.

Karen Spärck Jones, pioneer of the science behind information retrieval, ACM SIGIR Salton Award 1988, BCS Lovelace Medal 2007, the ACM-AAAI Allen Newell Award 2007

Susan Landau, Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer, Anita Borg Institute Woman of Vision – Social Impact award winner 2008, American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow, Association for Computing Machinery Fellow 2011

Anita Borg, founding director of the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT), which became the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), EFF Pioneer Award 1995, WITI Hall of Fame 1998, ACM Fellow 1996

Augusta Ada King (Countess of Lovelace), 1843 wrote a description of Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine. She is credited with being the 1st computer programmer.