To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, Dona Crawford, Associate Director of Computation at Lawrence LivermoreNational Laboratory, talks about why women are so important to science and computing.
On the first floor of my office building at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on a wall directly adjacent to the double-glass doors that welcome hundreds of building residents and visitors every day, hangs a poster of 54 notable women in computing. I walk by it many times a day, a silent reminder of remarkable women who have made or are making significant contributions to technology.
One of the women featured on the poster is Augusta Ada Lovelace King, briefly described as “mathematician, known as the first computer programmer in 1843.” Ada, whose legacy the world celebrates annually, had a passion and vision for technology that make her a powerful symbol for modern women.
Ada was a self-described “analyst and metaphysician” who lived in the early nineteenth century before the label “professional scientist” even existed. She was a pioneer of computing science, who took part in writing the first published computer program, and a computing visionary, who recognized the potential for computers to do much more than just calculations.
She combined a love of poetry and keen imagination with an aptitude for numbers and reason into a blend she called “poetical science.” It was her ability to see the essence of things and imagine the big, audacious possibilities that led to her prescient thoughts that a calculating engine might be used to compose music, produce graphics, or conduct scientific research, as well as finding everyday practical use.
How right she was. Today, the ubiquitous application Ada imagined is a reality, and it’s what I love most about computing. Computing drives innovation in science (predicting earthquakes, monitoring and protecting the environment, and personalizing medicine to mention a few), but it also creates symphonies, changes the way we experience movies, and improves the products we buy.
Lending truth to the cliché "ahead of her time,” Ada’s ideas were largely ignored for more than 100 years until her notes were discovered in the 1950s. Since then, she has become a symbol of women in technology, inspiring an award in her name, a programming language created by the U.S. Department of Defense, and a day celebrated in her honor.
Ada was a trailblazer in computer science, but too few women have followed in her path. And the problem isn’t just in computer science; it’s pervasive throughout the STEM fields. No matter where you look, the statistics are grim—women make up close to half of all jobs in the U.S. workforce but hold less than 25% of STEM jobs. This statistic matches the reality in my own organization, where only 25% of the science and technologist workforce are female.
In general, bringing a diverse group of people to the table, including but not limited to women, ensures that a range of life experiences and perspectives are heard. People who represent many backgrounds, cultures, and experiences contribute new ideas, different ways of looking at problems, and inventive solutions. A more diverse workforce is better able to produce answers to the challenges we face.
This is imperative in science diplomacy. Throughout CRDF Global’s almost 20 years of operation, scientists and innovators have crossed borders where governments are not allowed, defied language barriers, shaped partnerships, and improved lives through advances in public health and medicine, environmental protection, global security, and economic stability. When scientists interact on objective topics, each subconsciously learns to understand how the other feels about subjective topics. Understanding one another at different levels is what helps promote peace.
Women are key to the effort. They have a unique ability to build bridges across divided communities and leverage women’s networks. They provide an access point into isolated areas where the rights of women and girls are most in need of attention. They draw from an array of experiences and viewpoints that lend to an understanding of people’s range of experiences in life.
My work with CRDF Global has changed the way I view the world and made me a more passionate advocate for pursuing science to improve the human condition. For the record, I didn’t foresee any of this as a child. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, the youngest of three girls and the first in my family to go to college. I had very few professional women role models to look up to. Certainly, no one told me the stories of Ada Lovelace, Sophie Germain, or Dorothy Hodgkin. I was drawn to mathematics in school because of its objectivity. I knew when I had the right answer, and that made me feel good. I didn’t realize at the time that math would lead me to a career that has been exciting, rewarding, challenging, and purposeful.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of technology and science diplomacy for the future. I hope more women get involved and that they are supported and encouraged at every step along their path. The world will be a better place for it.