Feminism Science Technology

The Legacy of Ada Lovelace

A guest post by Gráinne Shannon, a well-travelled senior software programmer, writer and poet. Her day job inspired the award-nominated Orla’s Code, published under the nom de plume Fiona Pearse. Originally from Ireland, she lives in the UK, calling London her home for now.

The Legacy of Ada

October 10th is Ada Lovelace Day. Known as the first ever programmer, in the mid-19th century Ada wrote instructions for a mechanical computing machine, which today would be collectively called an algorithm. During the 1930s, female mathematicians wrote computer software, while building the hardware was a man’s job. Over time, software development became male-dominated too and by the 1990s when I began a degree in computer science, I was often the only woman at a lecture. But we were in the era of post-feminism and, stepping into the industry, I believed the other women were right behind me. Today, after a twenty-year career as a programmer, I am still the only woman on my team. The word I would use to describe my feeling about this is, weary.

It sickens me to think young women might be put off I.T. because of the diversity manifesto leaked from Google recently to much controversy. The author, James Damore, claims his subsequent firing was punishment for speaking out against an ideology. The far-right has come to his aid, casting him as a victim of oppression and crowd-funding his legal case. I believe Mr Damore has a right to share his views but not the right to cherry-pick scientific results and present them as the whole truth. That is a misuse of science and an abuse of free speech.

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace)

Evolutionary psychology and biology are employed throughout his paper to formalise his argument that women are less biologically suited to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than men. For example, he implies a fundamental difference in foetal brain development:

“They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone”

These fields of research are controversial. Note this New Scientist article published in 2015:

“The idea that people have either a “female” or “male” brain is an old one,” says Daphna Joel at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “The theory goes that once a foetus develops testicles, they secrete testosterone which masculinises the brain. If that were true, there would be two types of brain.”

And this 2015 paper on evolutionary psychology, which contradicts previous theories: Sex equality can explain hunter-gatherer bands.

The right to free speech comes with the responsibility to portray opinions fairly and facts accurately. Damore does not achieve this. While he claims to be open and honest, his paper is a great example of how language is used to undermine women. Women are more agreeable, more cooperative and less competitive than men, he states. Usually positive attributes, in this context, limitations, which can be interpreted to mean: women do not make strong leaders. But consider the evidence. If women, on average, had such fine tuning, schools and fashion houses would be run differently, with less in-fighting and politics than male-dominated institutions. In fact, there would probably be studies on how this works. I would argue that in general, men are just as cooperative as women. Armies train men to cooperate with close synchronicity. Their success depends on it. When referring to men, we use the word disciplined. Another word to describe male cooperation is, bonding. When evoked, women are perceived as more likely to compete.

Damore admits he may have blind spots but still repeatedly falls into the trap of confirmation bias. Having established a false premise, he leaps to this conclusion:

“This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary”

All other factors are left out of the equal pay issue; such as maternity/paternity leave; lack of gender pay transparency. This 2017 study of 45,000 job applicants in the tech industry, found African Americans asked for a lower salary than white Americans, and offers this explanation:

“We think this [lower] preferred salary is a sign mostly of historical bias and discrimination against people.”

The motivation for his paper seems to be Damore’s claim that men, as the majority, are excluded from diversity programmes and therefore disadvantaged. I agree that white men do not get extra support. They don’t have a feminist movement telling them to Lean In. Men can be unhappy with their working conditions and afraid to speak up; I have seen men bullied in the workplace and become submissive in the face of autocratic management. But these men are not cast as biologically inferior. Meanwhile, when women are compared with men, they are compared only with alpha-males, and female biology is blamed for short-comings. Ironically, this is part of the subtle and persistent bullying of women that makes diversity programmes necessary in the first place.

Damore’s analysis surfs a false assumption that maverick tendencies are the same as leadership skills. Building on that, he plucks off intermediate scientific results to conclude women are lacking, and should accept this natural order. It is naïve, arrogant and deeply sexist. His contempt for women is further demonstrated when he offers alternative ways to encourage diversity, which amounts to patronising women and prescribing gender roles. Diversity itself leads to broader methodologies – which is why companies invest in it – but to reverse the process and create methodologies in anticipation of stereotypes could only reinforce preconceptions and would be stifling to those who did not fit the profile. This is another point of view sitting in Damore’s blind spot.

I think since 2016 we have all had enough of half-truths and the manipulation of facts. When a forum is used to justify inequality by misrepresenting scientific information with heavily biased arguments, that is not free speech; it is discrimination and it should be met with consequences. I’d like to think this is the reason James Damore was fired from Google.

All things being equal, it’s possible we would not see a 50/50 gender split in tech. We might see 40/60 or even 60/40. The NGCP project has found that girls and boys do not significantly differ in their abilities in mathematics and science, and it was recently estimated that 46% of physicians in training are women. So why is it that the number of women in I.T. remains lower than 20%? I believe it is because until recently programming was not taught in school, so students were exposed to it only if they belonged to a certain sub-culture. That sub-culture dominates the industry. But programming has now been brought into the classroom with initiatives aimed at pre-teens, like Micro:BitScratch and Girls Who Code. Young women have also become the new consumer base in the gaming world. As that base diversifies it will feed a more diverse workforce. In 2013 the attendance at New York Comic Con was 41% female! This is real change and I think in about ten years we will finally see the number of women in tech significantly grow, bringing a healthy balance of perspectives and game-changing innovations to the industry.

Despite my weariness, I am optimistic that the legacy of Ada Lovelace, who died at the tragically early age of thirty-six, will be realised in the years to come.

5 comments on “The Legacy of Ada Lovelace

  1. Tá an scéal sin go hiontach.


  2. Grainne Shannon

    Hi. Well that’s pretty extreme – let’s end civilization! 🙂
    Women have faced these roadblocks though in every industry and have mostly overcome them. Awful to think there are more examples to come. There’s so much being uncovered this decade – I hope it will ultimately lead to more transparency…


    • Mary the horse

      I’m weary of your “utopia”, it sounds like another Marxist hell.


  3. ar an sliabh

    It is truly unbelievable how conservative even the most liberal-line touting businesses such as Google, Face Book, Starbucks, Hollywood, etc, are when their core employment and pay policies are examined with an objective microscope. It almost seems like their “liberal” front is to divert from the fact that hey are just as much “the man” as any other “fat cat” company or individual out there. Evidence of utlilising slave labour abroad, hiring scabs (illegal labour), and accord-work being aplenty.


    • Grainne Shannon

      It’s true, the West still exploits the developing world. Often the company facade doesn’t match the operations. It will be really interesting to see what comes of the equal pay lawsuit brought against Google.


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