Meet the Founder of Ada Lovelace Day
Interview: Magda Knight
Ada Lovelace Day founder Suw Charman-Anderson on eradicating gender prejudice in science, promoting women in technology, female game hack days, THAT VIDEO and the uses of a female Brian Cox.
Ada Lovelace is widely held to be the world’s first computer programmer. That she was Lord Byron’s daughter and a wow at parties trails in the dust in comparison. She is the face of Ada Lovelace Day, set up by Suw Charman-Anderson to promote women in tech (and, increasingly, all the other sciences). Anyone can celebrate 16 October 2012 by blogging about a notable woman in science, attending spectacular events set up by the ALA organisation and supporting the fundraiser. After talking to the wonderful Suw Charman-Anderson, who in seeking to inspire others has inspired so many, we kind of want to blog about her.
ADA LOVELACE DAY 16 OCTOBER 2012
You set up Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate and promote women in science. Was it a Promethean flash of inspiration, or a long time brewing?
SCA: Actually, it was a bit of both. There had been a lot of discussions in the tech world about the lack of women speakers at conferences in the mid- to late-00s, but very little action. Every time a new conference speaker list was announced, we’d count up the women and ask why there weren’t more. The answer that came from organisers was, more often than not, that they couldn’t find any women, which felt like a nonsense given how many women we knew were doing great work in tech.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure what I could personally do about this but then I read about the work of psychologist Penelope Lockwood. She 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.”
The idea of creating new role models seemed like an achievable goal: All I needed to do was get people talking. The first Ada Lovelace Day was born on Pledgebank, where nearly 2000 people promised to write about a woman in tech that they admired.
Do you see a lot of gender discrimination in tech fields today?
SCA: I think there is clearly still discrimination. When you look at the number of women in senior positions and at board level in tech companies, we can see that they are still in a minority. For example, Sheryl Sandberg became the first female board member at Facebook in June 2012 – isn’t it ridiculous that it took them that long to recruit a woman to the board? Are we to believe that there were no competent women capable of serving on the board until this year?
But a lot of the day-to-day discrimination can be much more subtle than the blatant misogyny that we assume we left behind in the 70s. It’s things like women not being invited to meetings that they should be at, constantly being interrupted by male colleagues when talking, having their ideas ignored by their managers who then go on to praise the same idea when it comes from a male counterpart. This kind of stuff is difficult to combat because people expect ‘gender prejudice’ to be more brutal, but actually there’s nothing more brutal than having your position persistently undermined by people talking over you and ignoring your ideas, and then being told that you’re ‘being sensitive’ if you complain about it.
Suw Charman-Anderson. Photo: Alex Dunne.
Anyone can participate in Ada Lovelace Day. Let’s say there’s someone out there with a blog who wants to take part on 16 October. What can they do?
SCA: It couldn’t be easier for people who want to participate: Just write a blog post about a woman in technology, science, engineering, maths or any other related subject whose achievements you admire. If you want to add your post to our collection, then visit our Stories page, sign up (or log in) and add your URL to our database. And then tell all your friends!
Although we started off as a ‘day of blogging’, really we don’t mind what platform people choose to use. Write a Facebook post, or on Google+, or record a podcast, cut together a video, do whatever you are comfortable with. Our first year saw artist Sydney Padua start a webcomic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage, which is now becoming a book.
In what ways has Ada Lovelace Day grown since its inception?
SCA: Ada Lovelace Day 2009 was simply an online festival of women in tech, but since then we’ve expanded our remit to cover science, engineering, maths and all related disciplines as well. Women in all these fields face the same sorts of challenges, so it makes sense to try to work on raising profiles across the board.
We also now do events on the day too. Last year we partnered with BCSWomen to put on an android workshop during the day and Ada Lovelace Day Live! in the evening, featuring a fantastic line-up of women scientists, technologists and comedians. That went so well that we decided to do it again this year, and have partnered with the Women’s Engineering Society to put on Ada Lovelace Day Live! Featuring the WES Karen Burt Award on the evening of 16 October at the IET in London.
It’s another great line-up too, including Dr Suzie Sheehy, Gia Milinovich, Dr Helen Scales, Helen Keen, Dr Alice Bell, Sarah Angliss and Sydney Padua, and hosted by Helen Arney. It’s going to be a mix of science, technology, comedy and song, featuring all manner of wonders from marine biology and particle physics to the secrets of fridges and performance robots. Last year’s event was mind-bendingly good, and this year’s is going to be even better!
We’ve also partnered with the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment and the London Games Festival to put on the XX Game an all-female games hackday where teams will compete to produce the best computer game in just 24 hours. That will be held on 26th and 27th October and we’re looking for women programmers, producers, artists, designers, sound designers or composers who want to have a go at making a game. No experience of game development is needed, just enthusiasm! As far as we know, it’s the first all-women event of its type.
Has it caught the imagination of national and global media? Has their reportage been positive, or otherwise?
The first year we ran Ada Lovelace Day we got a lot of coverage before the day, but in subsequent years there has been less. I think that’s because journalists are naturally attracted to novelty, and so are a lot less interested when something happens for the second, third or fourth time.
However, we’ve always counted a lot of journalists amongst our supporters, so on the day many of them will take part and write about the women that inspire them. That’s actually more important, in some ways, because what we want to do is highlight the great work being done by women, so the more people who see profiles of women in newspapers or on TV, the better.
Ada Lovelace Day has set up a fundraiser this year. Well done on running it so long with volunteers. How will those funds help women in technology?
SCA: My key aim is to create a charitable organisation that can provide support to women in tech all year round, not just on one day. One project we’re working on is to create a database of all the different support groups that exist for women across different sectors, to make it easier for women to find the right kind of group for them. When I started in tech, I felt very isolated, a problem made worse by the fact that I was a freelance so didn’t spend long at any one company, and certainly not long enough to build a social support structure around myself. There are many more groups around now than there used to be, but like us, most of them have almost no budget and they don’t always have the reach they need. We’d like to help bridge that gap.
I’d also like to be able to help women with skills development, particularly around things like media training so that we can get more women experts on the TV and in the newspapers. Whenever there’s a big tech story, the pundits are almost always men, and it’d be great to be able to matchmake knowledgeable women with journalists so that we can even out the ratio a bit.
And finally, there’s a huge need for educational materials around women in technology and science. I’ve had a number of teachers come to me and ask if we have lesson plans that they could use for Ada Lovelace Day, but unfortunately we don’t. It would be great for us to be able to provide teachers at all grades with lesson plans that they can adapt for their classes. We need to inspire a new generation of girls and show them that women can be successful in technology, and this would be one way to could do that.
We LOVE how the various fundraiser contribution levels are named after seminal female scientists in history, stretching right back to Merit-Ptah, Agamede and Theano! Your personal science heroines?
SCA: Like many women, my heroines have been women that I knew, teachers or lecturers, because for the longest time there simply were no other role models. I remember with particular fondness my maths teacher at school, Mrs Grey, who told us once how she worked on the optical sights for tanks. That was, in my opinion, inestimably cool! She was a great teacher and a great inspiration.
Beyond Mrs Grey, the only other woman that I looked up to as a teen was Maggie Philbin, who co-presented Tomorrow’s World. To see a woman getting her hands dirty demoing tech live on TV was great, and I was delighted when she became such a vocal supporter of Ada Lovelace Day herself, speaking at both our events so far.
Now I’m inspired by Ada, obviously, but also Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, and amazing computer scientists who wrote the first compiler and helped develop COBOL. She also used to hand out 30cm lengths of wire at talks as a way of illustrating how far light travels in one nanosecond. Then there’s Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood starlet who also happened to invent frequency hopping, which is still used in wireless devices today. And, of course, Rosalind Franklin, whose essential work on the structure of DNA was cruelly overlooked for decades.
Have you any moments or stories where you’ve seen Ada Lovelace Day directly affect a woman in technology?
SCA: I get a lot of people saying they love Ada Lovelace Day, but so far, no one has come back to me with a story on how it has affected them. I would love it if they did!
Do you think there’s a female Brian Cox out there?
SCA: Yes, there are undoubtedly women out there who have the scientific background, personality and ease on camera to become a female Brian Cox. The problem is that there are few opportunities for women in science and tech to shine in front of the camera, so it’s difficult for any woman who wants to tread that path to make progress.
One example of a great program, though, was the BBC Horizon’s Transit of Venus, presented by Liz Bonnin, Lucie Green and Helen Czerski. It really was a fantastic show: here were three very intelligent women, doing the interviewing, explaining the science, and demonstrating their passion for astronomy. They weren’t relegated to a brief cameo or doing some sort of ‘astronomy for dummies’, they got to grapple with some solid science and they did so in a way that was knowledgeable and accessible.
I would very much like to see more women presenting science shows on their own, without a male co-host. Not only is it important from a role models perspective, it’s also great TV – the Transit of Venus show proved that!
We’re sure you’ve heard the furore over the Girls – It’s a Science Thing video. We were quite snippy (okay, irate) about it. The Facebook page and general endeavour was great, showcasing female scientists and Doing Good Things. We hated the promotional video, which seemed full of standard uninspired nonsense. But then it was chosen by test groups of teenage girls. May we ask what your thoughts were about all that?
SCA: I was pretty livid about that video as well, and with the help of the Ada Lovelace Day working group wrote what I thought was a very constructive email to the Commission team behind it, asking that they improve the site’s branding, remove the stock photos, and work with existing organisations already working in this field. They didn’t grace us with a reply.
That, to me, is the bigger problem here. The video sucked, but the broader issue is that they worked in isolation from the rest of the community and appear to be unwilling to even talk about how they could help us and how we could help them. It would have been much more effective, in my opinion, if they’d given some no-strings-attached grant money to organisations working in these areas in different European countries, rather than trying to create something entirely new.
You, personally. What’s your favourite field of science? What’s the one that sets you a-glow?
SCA: I have a degree in geology, a field that I left when I left university because I couldn’t figure out what my career path might look like. There were few recruitment opportunities at the time due to a hiring freeze in the oil industry, and I couldn’t see how I could afford a masters or doctorate. So I went into publishing instead.
I’ve never lost my love for rocks, though, no matter what I’ve done in the meantime. Advances in real-time monitoring of volcanos has meant that I can now follow eruptions around the world as an interested amateur. I watched the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull with avid curiosity, and was delighted when that passion collided with my work, and I was commissioned to write a research paper for Chatham House looking at the media reaction to the ash cloud disruption. Opportunities like that come up so rarely for me, they are to be savoured when they do.
Is there anything we should have asked, but were far too selfish to do so?
SCA: Yes: what can people do to help?
If there’s one thing that we always need help with, it’s spreading the word about Ada Lovelace Day, our events and our fundraiser. Whether with a tweet, a blog post, a Facebook update or an email to a discussion group you’re on, everything helps! So please, if you support Ada Lovelace Day, do tell your friends!
Suw Charman-Anderson being a general hero. Photo: Alex Dunne.