Salient points [#4] – “Ada Lovelace Day” for equality in STEM and beyond

I’m not one to echo the Portrait of Ada Lovelace (1852)claptrap of hashtag hype but, today is Ada Lovelace Day and I heartily recommend searching as deep as you like into the celebration and, more importantly, the eponymous lady herself.

Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Byron yet, to her enduring credit, she did not rest on her laurels and (as far as she could in a male-dominated world) established her own credentials. Today Ada has become one of the exemplary figureheads for a growing argument that acknowledges the significant contribution of females in all fields, including Science. This has been of interest to me long enough that it drove the female characterisation within my debut novel – my goal was to develop and ensure three-dimensional, intellectual, pivotal roles. Why? Because in my view, across all walks of life, there are still today seldom enough positive, balanced, credible female voices, stories, and/or representations.

In the woefully anachronistic realms of Business and Politics, as with any of the lopsided, male-dominated national cultures persisting around the world, it is somewhat understandable why so few women have straightforward respect, let alone status, reverence, plaudits. Yet even in the famously open-minded Sci-Tech-Engineering spheres, you do not have to listen very widely or intently to find diverse female voices rightfully drawing attention to largely untold wrongs in terms of equality, opportunities, recognition…

A topical example is the Nobel Prize, currently enjoying its annual carousel of international media attention. As is widely accepted, there are few greater honours bestowed upon scientists (and others including artists). The Prize is traditionally given “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind,” according to the Prize founder, Alfred Nobel’s will and testament, 1895.

That ‘mankind’ term would usually jar my critical eye but it makes sense – Alfred was writing in the 19th Century. So surely the Prize has blossomed to acknowledge merit over mankind, right?  Wrong – or at least something does not look quite right when you consider the list of winners, across categories: Women (lest we forget being >50% or =50% of the world’s population) account for the disproportionately tiny figure of around 5% of all Nobel recipients (in total consisting of nearly 1,000 individuals alongside more than 20 organisations).

It gets worse when you dig into the data. Of the Nobel’s six categories, the Prize for Literature has had the most female representation (12.5%), with the Peace Prize echoing this share (12.4%). To many, those two fields – Literature and Peace – are firmly rooted in the Humanities and prone to the gender bias that preserves them as ‘suitable fields for females’. Hmm. How about Science? Physics has had the least female recipients – hovering around the dismal 1% mark of all Nobel recipients.

This leads us back to Ada. If you just glance into her life, you will soon find that she was on the cusp of pioneering work in Mathematics, working on algorithms that foresee ‘code’ and hence today’s software. Just what might have been – had Ada been supported in her lifetime in equal terms to those enjoyed by her male counterparts? The world may have enjoyed the benefits of a 19th Century ‘steam-powered software’ and data revolution. If so, we could have been celebrating Ada Lovelace Day in quite a different, more global sense, today – and, perhaps, we could have been living in a quite different world.


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