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Why We’re Still Talking About Gender in STEM on Ada’s 200th Birthday

Today, December 10th, would have been Ada Lovelace’s 200th birthday. Lovelace was a groundbreaking mathematician, and is considered to be the first computer programmer for her work on the analytical engine. She has become an iconic figure and an inspiration to women pursuing science, math, and engineering everywhere. But while we’ve come a long way since Lovelace published her work 172 years ago, the way women are treated in tech is still Victorian. Condescension, pigeonholing, and poorly played hashtag campaigns reign fiercely in the field. Lovelace herself could probably relate.

So, what better way to celebrate your birthday, Lady Ada, than to identify where we’ve arrived in the 21st century, look at how women in STEM are treated, and fathom where we should go from here.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon
Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace by Alfred Edward Chalon

Who Was Ada?

When she was about 17 years old, Lovelace met mathematician Charles Babbage, who soon became her friend and mentor. She had the opportunity to study Babbage’s difference engine, a type of mechanical calculator, as well as his plans for a second and more sophisticated machine called the analytical engine that would later become the progenitor of modern day computing.

When Lovelace was tasked with translating an article on Babbage’s analytical engine, she also appended her own propositions on a variety of possibilities, such as how new codes could be created for the machine to work with letters and symbols, and on how to implement a repeated series of instructions, now known as looping. Her work, “A Sketch of the Analytical Engine,” was published in an English science journal in 1843. Although it received little recognition over the course of her short life (she died at the age of 36, allegedly from uterine cancer), Alan Turing revisited her notes decades later in the 1940s when he developed the first modern computers.

The analytical engine, illustrated by Sydney Padua
The analytical engine, illustrated by Sydney Padua

The Comments Section of the Victorian Era

As a woman of high society and the daughter of famous poet Lord Byron, Lovelace was provided with the educational and social resources that made her contributions possible. This was incredibly rare for a Victorian woman, as the era is notorious for solidifying gender roles and relegating women to the domestic sphere.

However, her status and accomplishments didn’t afford her genuine praise. Critics and fans alike couldn’t help but base their comments around gender. Mathematician Augustus de Morgan could only explain Lovelace’s success by comparing her capabilities to a man’s strength, because when it comes to mathematics, “the very great tension of mind which they require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.”

Even those who praised Lovelace did so on the basis of her gender, instead of her actual work. Her mentor Babbage attributed her success solely to the nature of her gender when he wrote in a letter that she was an “Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

State of the STEM

Today, the industry is a completely different and constantly evolving landscape. In the 200 years since Lovelace’s birth, we’ve thankfully overturned many Victorian ideals that kept women from exploring their potential outside the home. So how exactly are women faring in the STEM world of the 21st century?

Well, we know that there are more women in the workforce than ever before. Just since 1970, women’s labor has expanded the American economy by $2 trillion dollars. Colleges across the nation are also seeing the scales tip: more Bachelor’s degrees are conferred to women than men. But the gender breakdown of computer science and engineering majors hasn’t caught up. Women account for only about a fifth of computer science and engineering majors.

And the same trend appears in the labor force. Female representation in STEM occupations has climbed steadily over the past few decades, reaching 50% or more for certain fields. However the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that when it comes to computer and mathematical occupations specifically, women still only account for a mere 25%.


So, What’s the Problem, Exactly?

I know what some of you may be thinking at this point. That men and women are inherently different, so of course it makes sense that they would choose different career paths. In that case, what’s the problem?

At least one study agrees with you. Cambridge University published evidence that biological differences are present from birth and dictate the preferences you hold for the rest of your life. Yes, this includes whether or not you are inclined to pursue a career in STEM. And in light of this, some people are wondering if the gender gap may be overblown. However, those standing behind the opposing podium still argue that how we are socialized from a young age plays a huge role that we just shouldn’t ignore.

It’s Not Just the Thought That Counts

Regardless of where you stand in the nature vs. nurture debate, STEM’s gender disparity has drawn a spotlight that’s catalyzed countless programs and campaigns. In 2013 the federal government released a 5-year plan for STEM education, a primary goal of which is to “broaden participation of women and girls.” Additionally, the White House has announced partnerships with NASA and the Girl Scouts of America to initiate mentorship programs for girls. The National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program also hopes to “increase the representation and advancement of women” in STEM.


But governing bodies and national foundations aren’t the only players — businesses like Google and IBM have initiated their own strategies in an effort to get more girls interested in STEM.

It’s great to see that this issue has commanded national attention and sparked so many proactive initiatives, but not all of these have been well conceived, or well received by, you know, actual women. IBM just came under major fire from the Twitterverse for their #HackAHairDryer campaign. While it seems to come from a genuinely well-intentioned place, the hashtag campaign misses the mark completely for its insinuation that women might only care to interact with the world around them as it relates to their beauty regimen. In short, it’s patronizing. IBM’s cringe-worthy marketing mistake echoes that of EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign just a few months ago.

As Emily Schoerning aptly said in light of EDF Energy’s pretty condescending #PrettyCurious campaign, “I hate this presumption that STEM stuff needs to be girlified to appeal to female people.” And she points out that this is just one of the latest examples in a long tradition dating back to the polite botanists of the 1800’sShe concludes that these seemingly “female-friendly” campaigns “do more to stereotype girls, to put them in a place, than to unleash their minds and let them on the field.”

This top-down condescension has prompted women such as the engineer Isis Anchalee to retaliate with their own grassroots hashtag campaigns. Anchalee created #ILookLikeAnEngineer in August as a response to commenters who told her she was too pretty to be an engineer. Similarly, many female scientists are tweeting pictures of themselves in the workplace with the tag #distractinglysexy, a flippant response to scientist Tim Hunt’s sexist comments.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

All of these campaigns, successful or not, have pinpointed the contention between femininity and STEM.

It’s a sexist and lazy strategy to try and bring women into STEM solely by appealing to their femininity. Sure, #HackAHairDryer was totally insulting. But some critics would have you believing that women should be proving their dedication by renouncing their beauty products, insinuating that perhaps femininity has no place in STEM at all. However, there really are women who are able to live comfortably in their feminine skin while occupying a space in the boys’ club.

The women who post their pictures to #ILookLikeAnEngineer represent women of all walks of life, from the smallest grade schoolers to women wearing burqas and yes, women wearing lipstick and sporting long feminine hair. Women in STEM shouldn’t be patronized with suggestions to hack their hairdryers, but we also shouldn’t feel obligated to adapt to a masculine or unfeminine ideal in order to be successful in a male-dominated industry. “Women are equals to men, but we’re not the exact same,” says Nomiku CEO Lisa Fetterman.

Schoerning and I agree that STEM stuff doesn’t need to be girlified. But does that mean it’s always bad to do so? What happens when the girlification of STEM is actually being generated by real women? CEO of blink blink Nicole Messier designed her company’s creative circuit kits with and for real teenage girls. And while the product certainly gives off girly vibes, there’s a completely different context here compared to IBM’s campaign. Messier says that “it’s about meeting girls where they’re at — finding activities and subjects they’re interested at particular ages and embedding tech within those activities.” IBM may have thought this is what they were doing, but there’s a clear difference here — bringing your identity to the topic at hand and creating something that genuinely represents you is not the same as attempting to engage a community by telling them they should play out a tired stereotype.

Teenage girls who contributed to a blink blink workshop.
Teenage girls who contributed to a blink blink workshop.

So how can we start to minimize harmful efforts and instead focus on meaningful strategies to get girls into STEM? Messier remembers her time as an engineering student, when the newly founded engineering sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon offered her a supportive community. Messier was on the brink of transferring out of her engineering program, but “the community of women made all the difference.” Hand in hand with community is communication. “The only way to solve this is from an open conversation [to] bringing this problem to light,” says Fetterman. Women supporting women can only bring good things.

Next, we must recognize how 21st century sexism operates. “[Sexism] doesn’t happen on an ‘on purpose’ level,” observes Messier. “Nobody wants to be sexist,” adds Fetterman. “It’s really hard to nail down exactly how sexism works, because it’s so ingrained in our society.” Very few people are purposefully sexist in this day and age and in this particular industry (perhaps with the exception of Tim Hunt). Rather, we must acknowledge and combat the insidious effects of implicit bias, which has been documented by the White House Office of Science and Technology. Even people like Sequoia Capital Chairman Michael Moritz, who genuinely believes that he runs a “gender-blind” VC firm, said that he’s happy to hire women, but that “what we’re not prepared to do is to lower our standards.” While Moritz is clearly well-intentioned, his comment insinuates that men automatically meet a higher standard than women do.

While these phenomena are problematic and tricky to navigate, the solutions are pretty straightforward. Allow women’s voices, identities, and opinions to exist in a space where they’re often outnumbered 5 to 1. For men, the first step is to just acknowledge that you are — we all are — affected by implicit bias, and realizing that simply having good intentions is not enough to turn the tide.

Ada Lovelace contributed one of the most groundbreaking mathematical works to the modern age. She did so by bringing her genuine self to the task at hand — and she didn’t need an insulting campaign urging her to hack her bodice in order to do so. And 200 years later, women still find this unnecessary. So Ada, thanks for paving the way. Regardless of our personal choices about how feminine we choose to be as women, we have been, are, and will continue to be successful in every corner of STEM.


Sophia is the managing editor of the Make: blog. When she’s not greasing editorial gears, she likes to run, ride, climb, and lift things, and make lo-tech goods like zines, desserts, and altered clothing. @sophiuhcamille

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