Ada Lovelace Day - raising awareness of women's achievements in IT

Not many people will have heard of Ada Lovelace , and perhaps even fewer would associate her with...

With a programming language named after her, the influence of the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, has spread much farther than her fame.

The Countess of Lovelace was also the daughter of poet Lord Byron and a good friend of Charles Babbage, who invented the first mechanical computer. By writing out a method for calculating Beroulli numbers on Babbage's machine, the analytical engine, Lovelace came to be recognised as the world's first programmer.

If a 19th century British countess can found the computer science profession at the age of 27, then why can't the UK persuade more than a few hundred young women to study it every year at university?

It is one of several questions Suw Charman-Anderson wanted to answer when she set up Ada Lovelace Day. The day will involve over 1,000 bloggers pledging to blog about a woman in technology on 24 March, the aim being to boost awareness of what women are achieving.

Female role models

The idea is that as awareness increases, female role models in technology will emerge. The current lack of female role models is believed to be one reason so few girls choose a career in technology.

If the public image for the upper realms of a particular profession is purely or mainly male, then on some level, the logic goes, girls will not think of that profession as "for them" and will write technology off as something boys do.

If there are a few more high-profile, senior women in technology, perhaps girls and young women will give a career in IT more consideration.

Charman-Anderson, a social media expert whose career started in web design, says she felt "isolated" as a woman making her way up the IT career ladder, but she is adamant she does not want it to be an "us and them thing".

"Ada Lovelace day is about looking at what is really happening and what women are achieving," she says.

As part of the campaign, Computer Weekly has spoken to five women in technology to help raise awareness of their achievements and generate ideas for possible female role models.

Sarah Blow, software engineer

Sarah Blow is 27 and a software engineer working on .Net. She works for a medical device company and has done since graduating, when she was headhunted by her current employer.

In her spare time, she set up Girl Geeks, a networking group aimed at women in technology. The group was formed after a somewhat alienating experience at a normal IT networking event - around 90% of the attendees were men and she was repeatedly asked if she was there as someone's girlfriend.

By setting up a female networking group, Blow is not aiming to exclude men, but to "turn things on their head" by giving women a chance to be in the majority and feel less isolated.

Blow first got interested in IT when a teacher suggested she study it at university and helped her find courses that did not require A-level maths. She excelled at the computation course at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, winning a scholarship to do a Master of Enterprise in computation, which focused on the skills needed to set up a business.

"I like the problem-solving side of my job. I originally thought of doing law, but when I started my computation degree, I wondered why I had not thought of IT sooner. I also get to do some of the design side and the development of the architecture as well, so I have a bit of everything," she says.

Blow says more work needs to be done on attracting female students to IT-related degree courses.

"There are not enough students doing IT degrees, either male or female. We need to make sure people are given encouragement and that they know about the degree requirements - that you do not need A-level maths, for example," she says.

Gillian Arnold, technical manager at IBM

Gillian Arnold is a technical manager at IBM, and the chair of the Women's Forum at the IT trade association Intellect. Her role at IBM involves looking after a team of people, who between them tell customers how they can get the most out of their IBM storage products.

Arnold got into IT aged 17, when she became a computer operator at a shipping company. "I chose the job because it sounded intellectual and I thought it would impress my dad. There would be two other women on a shift with me, out of a team of 12 or 13, which was a reasonable ratio at the time," she says.

After about nine years in operations, Arnold worked at banks and telecommunications companies before moving to IBM.

"I had worked on IBM equipment all my life, and for me it was the place to work. I have had a range of roles in the company, but I love the technology side," she says.

Arnold adds that the variety offered by big IT companies means careers in the sector are exciting. "When you have got as much pleasure out of the role or technology as you can, you can go and find a different role in the same company.

"There is an image that the technical role is a programming role it's not - it can be about going and talking to customers, about the software and its benefits. This side is so much more interesting."

Rebecca George, partner at Deloitte

Rebecca George has worked as a partner in Deloitte since 2006. She manages Deloitte's relationship with central government departments and is the chair of the Women's Forum at the British Computer Society (BCS).

She studied English at Oxford University, and went to America to study for a master's degree in broadcasting systems. She spent a short time working in the cable television industry, which at that time was almost non-existent, but decided after a while that she was not getting anywhere. After a short stint in management consultancy, she went to work at IBM, where she stayed for 20 years.

"It was not what I intended, but IBM gave me interesting and different jobs to do," she says.

George says her role is not technical. "Some purists would say you are only really a woman in technology if you have a technical background. But we need all sorts of people in the industry."

As BCS Women's Forum Chair, George has just finished a consultation period in which she sought the views on what should be done about diversity in the industry. "One of the problems we have is that there are a lot of fragmented small initiatives. We need fewer, bolder initiatives, with more people involved," she says.

Karen Price, chief executive of e-Skills

Karen Price is the chief executive of e-Skills, the skills council for the IT sector. She spends her days talking to key chief information officers, CEOs of multinational companies, government ministers and the media to get people enthused about technology and the opportunities it offers the UK.

"The UK has the potential to be one of the world's leading digital economies, but to achieve this everyone needs the skills to create, manage and use the technologies," she says.

The technology sector appealed to Price because of its fast-moving, dynamic nature, and the way it transforms everything it comes into contact with. Skills, she says, are the most important part of it.

"Skills may not seem the most romantic part of a career in technology, but they are probably the most important. Without the right skills, the best technology and technologists in the world will fail to reach their full potential.

"In my current role I have a chance to ensure the UK has the skills it needs. This is the most rewarding job of all and I come to work each day excited by the possibilities."

E-skills is working to reach girls and young women through initiatives like Computer Clubs for Girls, an after-school club which shows girls how diverse careers in IT are.

"Our own research indicates it is mainly a question of perception that starts very early on. While just under half of students taking IT at GCSE are female, only 15% of technology undergraduates are. Somewhere down the line we are losing a generation of bright and capable young women. Clearly something must be done," Price says.

Victoria Baker, freelance web designer

Victoria Baker is a freelance web designer who has worked on projects for a range of companies, from Manchester United football club to the 24-Hour Museum website.

She creates bespoke sites, or rebrands and revives established sites which need bringing up to date with current technology, which involves designing and coding the front end interface of websites and finding the best technology for the job. "You never know what you are going to learn next," she says.

The Central St Martins graduate says IT chose her, rather than the other way around, because the industry suited the way she thought.

"I am a very proud dyslexic, and the thing that makes my condition so exciting is that we think in complex structures all the time. When I got onto my first Apple Mac, I discovered something that worked liked I thought, and I have not stopped flying since," she says.

Baker has come across a few gender issues since she started working, but says it is not to do with the industry. "There have been issues, but that is nothing to do with IT, it is to do with the people," she says.

"I think it is important to boost awareness around any minority, because awareness stops it from becoming an issue."

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