The role models I didn't have (Ada Lovelace Day)

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be, variously, a singer, a bestselling author, a teacher, and a veterinary surgeon. Around the age of 10, thanks to an inspirational teacher in my last year at junior school, I added to that list mathematician and computer programmer. Milk bottle crate problems and filling the screen of the showroom computers in Dixons with my name thanks to BASIC learned at computer club started to seem a lot more interesting than a) putting animals down and b) comprehension tests (which was pretty much the limit of what I remember about our Eng Lit studies back then). It was 1985, and the world of science and technology seemed every bit as exciting as that of the arts.

Roll on a few more years, and when I finally graduated in 1996 it was in English and Theatre Studies, having left science behind me at the end of a rather meagre double-certificated GCSE course in 1991. So what went wrong?

Well, people change, it’s true. And Donne, Shakespeare and Plath were pretty exciting. But it wasn’t just that. I’d continued to tinker around with computers at home – though admittedly I was mainly in it for the games. But my enthusiasm for technology, problem-solving and computing hadn’t really diminished. At uni I hung around the computer rooms to play with the new stuff, when I could get a CompSci or Engineering student to show me what they were up to. I’d check messages on the green dumb terminal labs that were normally touched only by the tech students. And I can still remember my first-ever look at the first truly image-enabled browser, Mosaic.

It wasn’t to do with wanting to be ‘trendy’ either. Despite my attachment to the Mark and Lard show, there was really little risk of that given my penchant for patchwork, Star Trek, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, musical theatre, metaphysical poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins and chocolate fudge cake.

Where were the role models?

No, it was mostly down to the same issue that spurred Suw Charman-Anderson to create Ada Lovelace Day – the impact of the lack of female role models in technology that were available to me while I was at secondary school and making those crucial decisions about which direction to take my studies.

Theoretically I should have been okay – my school was a ‘TVEI’ school, which meant it was part of a ‘technical and vocational educational initiative’. So we did have a computer room and a technology lab with some electronics stuff in it. And one or two teachers who knew their stuff. But of course it came down to the luck of the draw, as it always does, in terms of which teachers you’d actually get for your classes. And out of the teachers that I had, the arts staff were by far the brightest and most inspirational. 

My experience of science and technology, however, was quite a contrast:

  • One chemistry teacher asked us to hold magnesium in the flames, without telling us to use tongs. Another told us sniff a chemical produced by an experiment – it was chlorine, I think, so a couple of us ended out on the field recovering… I wasn’t too impressed by their inability to be clear, or the potentially dangerous results if we’d all listened to them! (Nor was my 13 year old self particularly tolerant of mistakes…)
  • One of the many, many physics teachers I had (they kept changing, which in itself was off-putting) responded to an honest and interested question about why some experiment or other seemed to contradict something else I’d read with “you don’t need to know that now”. Now I can see her point – the school just wanted us through our exams. But it put me right off that subject in an instant. If enquiry was to be discouraged, I was going right back to my Literature classes where we were allowed to explore ideas and theories…
  • And then the final straws: my request to be allowed to do a computing GCSE on top of my others, was turned down, even if I did it in my own time, and two years later even Maths fell by the wayside of my A-level choices as I was already fighting to take the four I wanted, so an extra one wasn’t likely to make the cut…
  • And as it was a single-sex school, there weren’t any boys mad-keen on computing to learn from. There was just a few of us girls who occasionally tried hacking around on the school Nimbus network – but never got any real encouragement or opportunity to do anything more constructive once we’d done our very low-level IT intro studies early in our school career.

Outside school, there was no active discouragement – in fact my dad was quite keen for me and my siblings to ensure we stayed up to date with IT at home as far as possible – but there wasn’t much chance to see what possibilities there might be for a woman in a technology career, either. The world of computing, as viewed through the pages of the computing magazines my dad occasionally bought, or the gaming magazines bought by myself and my brothers, seemed very male. Not being a natural boundary-breaker at that age, it never crossed my mind that I could have actually found a career that might have suited my love of logic problems and the like in that world.

So given all that, and given that ALD is meant to be about celebrating the achievements of women who did see beyond the barriers, whose career paths do I wish I’d been able to imagine for myself, back then?

Female technology role models I wish I’d had when I was a teen

Morgan Romine / Rhoulette, Frag Doll: The Frag Dolls are an all-female video gaming team, and they’re good too – they’ve won the odd contest. Now, while I’m not much for a shoot-em-up, I have spent many a happy hour exploring Hyrule, played Tetris till I dreamt of falling blocks and Russian cossack dancers, and cracking the puzzles in Infocom games got me through my teenage years. If female gamers had had a more visible – and indeed, glam – presence like this when I was younger, I might have treated the daydream of gaming journalism / game design with a little more respect and done something about it. Romine was featured in Fast Company’s list of The Most Influential Women in Technology and you can read her attempt to convert women to gaming on that site too in “Why women should play video games“. But I’d add that young girls should play video games too (albeit not necessarily the ones marketed to them!) because actively playing games at their best quickly teaches just how interactive and exciting computing can be, inspiring curiosity as to how they work.

Violet Berlin, gaming tv presenter / journalist: Ditto. And if only I’d done a science degree maybe I’d have got into science communications too…

Gina Trapani, programmer and blogger: She created Lifehacker, which is a great example of how technology can enhance communication and get your voice heard, something I’ve always been passionate about! Not only that, but she got it published in book form.

Willow, girl geek member of Buffy’s vampire-slaying Scooby gang: Yes, okay, she’s not real. And eventually she pretty much gave computing up for Wicca instead, but still, there are thankfully, a lot more girls doing intelligent stuff in tv dramas these days than there were when I was a teen. Back then it was all about being the token hottie (think Daisy Duke and that one whose name I can’t remember from the A Team). With the memorable exception of Lynda Day – probably my first real role model, hence the career-path I took in the end!

Still – where there’s a will there’s a way, and thanks to stumbling into the online world early on in my career, I’ve got to the point where I’ve managed to get both technology and communications right to the centre of my working life – but perhaps the path would have been a little easier with a few more shining beacons to light the way. So here’s to Ada Lovelace Day, let’s hope it helps make the steps of the next generation of geek girls a little easier!