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Looking back, looking forward: how the role of women in technology has changed in my 40 year career

For Ada Lovelace Day, Shirley Williams, an Emeritus Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of Reading, discusses how the role of women in technology has changed during her 40 year computing career.

Shirley Williams
Professor Shirley Williams celebrating her retirement.

I recently retired. As my leaving date approached, I spent quite a lot of time sorting out my office and reflecting on how much the world has changed in the 40+ years since my job as a programmer began. And to me, there seemed to be three interconnected themes: the role of women, technology and education.

Looking back

When I was young, pubs were still able to ban women from their bars. We were relegated to a back room to wait for someone to bring us a drink. And going for a job interview was a far from liberating experience. When I was 18, one of the interview questions was: when did I intend to get married? This was seen as an acceptable question at the time – and I didn’t know how to respond.

Flash forward 15 years, to another interview, and things still hadn’t improved a great deal. I was asked the gender of my new baby and if she slept. This time, I had my response ready. I said, “Yes she slept.” I omitted that it was usually only for minutes at a time.

Now I know that such questions should never be asked, that we have legislation in place to ensure equality for all applicants regardless of gender – and means of redress if such questions do occur – but it has taken a long time for this change to happen.

Progress isn’t reflected in today’s technology gender mix

There’s no doubt that our position within the workplace and the opportunities available to women have improved significantly in the past fifteen years. But for some reason, this progress doesn’t seem to be reflected in the number of women pursuing computer and other technology-related careers today.

In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite; that there is a decline in women applying to and working within these fields. When Computer Science degrees were first offered in the late 1960s, the gender mix was about equal, but over the past few years many universities have seen all-male cohorts graduate.

I struggle to understand why so many women seem averse to programming as a career. Programming is a creative activity with almost limitless possibilities and I consider it among the things I like to do for pleasure, such as cooking and knitting.

This decline in interest is all the more surprising because the first programmer Ada Lovelace, the wife of a 19th century aristocrat, was a woman.

The first programmer was Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace
(Augusta) Ada King (née Byron), Countess of Lovelace by William Henry Mote, after Alfred Edward Chalon stipple engraving, published 1839 NPG D5124 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1815, Ada was the daughter of poet Lord Byron and mathematician Annabella Milbanke. In 1833 she met and befriended kindred spirit Charles Babbage – a British Professor of Mathematics and visionary inventor, famous for his plans to create giant calculating machines.

Fascinated by one of his inventions in particular, the highly complex Analytical Engine, Ada translated a brief report on the machine, originally published in French in 1840, by fellow mathematician Luigi Menabrea.

Not satisfied with merely translating the report she proceeded to interpret, extend and develop the underlying principles. In doing so, Ada wrote several “computer programs” – the first ever to be published.

Her final report: “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator” was an awe-inspiring achievement for anyone, especially a woman in Victorian England. And it is even more amazing when we consider that, 100 years later, Alan Turing referred to Ada’s seminal publication to help him develop some of the early forerunners of the computers we use today.

Computing – and education – have changed enormously

Thinking about Ada brings me onto the theme of technology. Computing has also changed enormously since the early days of my career. The first computer I ever used was kept in a room on its own, and I was only ever allowed to view it from the other side of a window.

The speed at which technology is advancing – and the price points that make it available for consumers – have had a big impact on the way we learn. In some ways, education has changed little since my school days of teacher-led instruction, but we can now see new opportunities for learning that many couldn’t have imagined even ten years ago.

For example, when we asked our degree finalists if they would ever use their mobile phones for educational purposes in the early 2000s, they were very dismissive of the idea. Yet around that time, I was also working with an international group on developing learning communities online, working through late night sessions to fit around the different time zones and international nature of the student body. My husband used to refer to this community as my “imaginary friends”.

These were the forerunners of online learning, and now anyone can join free online courses with FutureLearn and explore a wide range of subjects, using their mobile phone to join an international community of over two million people. We’ve come a long way since the “dip and run” ink pens of my junior school days.

Looking forward

These three interconnected themes – the role of women, technology and education – have changed dramatically during my career in computing and will continue to do so.

My one hope is that we will buck the current trend and see an increase in women opting for careers in computing, and other technology related fields.

Thankfully, there are several initiatives to help address the gender imbalance and to educate young women about the joys of technology, such as today’s Ada Lovelace Day, which celebrates the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

It’s vital that we are all at the forefront of this movement, men and women alike, and that we continue to recognise and celebrate the achievements of women through such events.

So in Ada’s honour, let’s share the power of FutureLearn with courses like the University of Reading’s “Begin Programming: Build Your First Mobile Game“. Let’s show how much fun programming can be, and encourage the next generation of talented women to take their first step towards a creative, varied and exciting new career path.

If you want to know more about Ada Lovelace Day, follow #AdaLovelaceDay or read our post from last year’s celebrations: “The women who inspire us at FutureLearn.”

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