Why We Still Need Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in science and inspire future generations. It is often said that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’, and if young children only ever see images of men as scientists, how are they to realise that girls too can participate? This was a point I made to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee when I gave evidence to their enquiry on diversity in STEM earlier this year.

I stressed there that the absence of named women scientists in the national curriculum is a gaping hole, one that will not make it easy for a girl to imagine that she belongs. It is a point that I may well use again when I present evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee enquiry on People and Skills in UK Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics next week, although I await further details about the precise line of questioning they intend to follow.

Needing to know that people like you are able to pursue the dreams you have is clearly important to encourage individuals to stick with their aspirations. In a very different context, I was very struck at the weekend to hear Fleur East (singer-songwriter-presenter), a celebrity contestant on Strictly, commenting on seeing a trailer of the next version of the cartoon the Little Mermaid, starring a character of colour. She said something along the lines of how much it would have mattered to her as a child to have seen such a character. Ok, she wasn’t dreaming of becoming a mermaid, but clearly a starring role in anything might have seemed unachievable if all she saw were white exemplars. (Many cartoons have of course started to redress this balance).

Ada Lovelace Day is a day to stress all the women who have made a difference in the scientific sphere, in whatever guise. They may be teachers or communicators rather than Nobel Prize winners, but their contribution to the overall scientific enterprise needs to be celebrated. Highlighting their actions and lives is one way of reminding school children that, whatever they look like, whatever their background, there is a place for them in science if they want it. Increasingly, if you are a parent you can find books that tell real life or fictional stories about women making their way in STEM: for instance biographies of Marie Curie suitable for a range of ages; Katherine Johnson’s autobiography aimed at early teens (Reaching for the Moon); or books about the fictional Rosie Revere, a girl with passion for inventing things. Lots of good reading matter, if you happen to come from a family with funds and inclination to bring such women to your attention. If you come from a less advantaged or informed background, the National Curriculum should be able to inspire you, so that it is depressing that the gap is not formally plugged to allow children from whatever family circumstances to be still aware of this reality.

Ada Lovelace is perhaps an unlikely icon for all of this, being the daughter of Lord Byron, whose life was tragically short, but she was a remarkable woman who made the most of her unusual upbringing and education (her mother was so frightened that she might follow in her father’s footsteps that she focussed her education on mathematics and not poetry). She was friends with Mary Somerville, but it was her association with Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine, that has led to her memory being celebrated. In 1843 she translated and extensively annotated an article written by the Italian mathematician and engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea, “Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage”, in which she set out the rudiments of a computational algorithm for the first time.

Ada Lovelace Day was initiated in 2009 by Suw Charman-Anderson but now seems under threat, in large part due to a lack of sponsorship. However, to think that we have reached a point where the problem about women in science is ‘fixed’ would be naïve in the extreme. One only has to think about the comments Katherine Barbalsingh made to the same Commons Select Committee I referred to above, to realise how far from the truth that is. There is still much work to be done to ensure that anyone, regardless of skin colour or chromosome distribution, is able to pursue a career in STEM if that is what they want to do. I do hope that Ada Lovelace Day will be able to continue.

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