Celebrating Ada Lovelace – computing pioneer and women in STEM today
An interview with Suw Charman Anderson
Suw Charman Anderson founded Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, named after the computing pioneer and with the aim to raise the profile of women in technology. Conceived as a day of blogging about women in technology, it rapidly broadened beyond tech and is an annual international celebration, with independent events having taken place from Nepal and India, to Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, the US, and Hong Kong.
In 2015, Digital Science awarded a Catalyst Grant to Ada Lovelace Day to launch a new resources database to help advance women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
We spoke to Suw about Ada Lovelace Day, the Finding Ada network, the importance of mentoring, and her hopes for the future.
Ada Lovelace Day has evolved since it began in 2009. Take us back to the beginning: what inspired you to start it?
I was working as a tech consultant and fed up with not seeing women on stage at tech conferences. In one notable example I was the only woman on stage and pretty much the only woman in a room of 100 people. Other women and I were having conversations on our blogs and social media calling out and challenging these conferences to frequently be told they couldn’t find any women, the women asked said no, or that there aren’t any women which just isn’t true. So, the original plan was to hold a day of blogging about women in technology with the aim of raising their profile, so that conference organisers wouldn’t have the excuse any more. We wanted to highlight women doing great work and who deserve more attention.
Nearly 4,000 people signed up, and over 1,000 participated. I was on BBC News and there was a lot of other media coverage and engagement, with people writing about the classic and famous women in STEM. From there it has changed focus from tech to STEM and to be more about events.
Our goal now is to inspire, so as to address the huge problem of losing women mid-career. Research by a psychologist called Penelope Lockwood found that female role models are more important to women than male role models are to men, as they act as evidence that success is possible in fields where evidence is in short supply. It’s important to keep pointing out to women that other women are successful and that they can.
What impacts have you seen since 2009?
We’ve seen a huge blossoming of grassroots organisations focused on supporting women in STEM. Some are very specific, like the Trowelblazers, for women in the trowel based sciences: geology, archaeology and palaeontology. There are groups like Black Girls Code, SONAC – The Sisterhood of Native American Coders – which was founded by Elisabeth Holm when she was 16. This is happening all around the world — we’ve got various Twitter lists — and they’ve all cropped up in the last decade. I think it shows that women are not going to sit back and wait for someone else to do it, they are going to get on with fixing it themselves.
Any highs or notable moments?
Personally it’s when I hear stories about what impact Ada Lovelace has had on people. At 17, Aphra Bennett contacted us to say she’d been to two or three Ada Lovelace Day live events and would love to speak at one. We set her up with a mentor, helped her shape her talk and she did an amazing job: the video on YouTube is amazing. She was inspired to study STEM at university and it’s wonderful to be able to provide that experience and opportunity to someone.
Other speakers, professional adults and professors have contacted me and said because they spoke at Ada Lovelace Day they’ve been invited to other events or had new opportunities.
You mentioned mentoring. A large part of your work these days is on the Finding Ada Network, which provides mentorship and supports women in STEM. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
In all industries, but particularly in academia, networking is important, and mentoring is a good way of developing your network in a safe environment: mentees trust their mentors and they can make introductions. We’ve had mentees who have had support through some fairly significant career challenges at different stages of their careers. There are all kinds of benefits, but the benefits for mentors are not talked about enough.
As a mentor myself, I’ve changed how I view myself as a leader, as a business person, and to some extent as a role model. I’m more reflective and thoughtful and have gained an insight into what other people are dealing with. There is evidence that mentoring improves leadership skills and I can see how. It makes you a better listener, and you focus on what’s at the bottom of your mentee’s problems. As a mentor you ask the questions that get them to dig a little and uncover the actual issue and help them to see the problem more clearly, and then they come up with their own answers.
What do you hope for the future of Ada Lovelace Day and for women in STEM?
I would love it to grow further and for businesses to do more of the work year round. Doing something once a year is necessary but insufficient: I’d like businesses to work with grassroots groups like mine, and with experts to think about this all year, to pay more attention to the community, and to people who are studying these issues. Maybe instead of what thinking about makes for a good press release, engaging with us as an organisation and making the necessary changes.
Personally, I’d like to bring menopause and ageism into the conversation because I’m worried that we are losing women in their late 40s to mid 50s on the basis that we’re too embarrassed to talk about a normal process that is affecting them on a day to day basis. Then my mission with the Finding Ada Network is to reform mentoring to make mentoring work for women. There is an onus on businesses to do this probably. So just a few ambitions there!
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