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Ada Lovelace Day: a celebration of women in STEM

Founded by journalist, social software consultant and campaigner Suw Charman-Anderson ten years ago in 2009, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, who have historically been overlooked in this traditionally male-dominated field.

Each year on the second Tuesday of October, the Ada Lovelace Day Live! conference is held in London for women to give talks about their scientific research, encouraging more girls and young women to pursue STEM in further education and in their future careers.

So, who was Ada Lovelace?

The daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Anna Isabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace (10th December 1815-27th November 1852) is considered the world's first computer programmer due to her commentary on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. Lovelace's mother—fearing that too much engagement with literature would lead to Lovelace developing the strange behaviour of her father—encouraged her to pursue science and mathematics, even though these subjects weren't deemed appropriate for women at the time. Lovelace's translation of a French paper on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine included her own extensive notes, describing an algorithm for Babbage's machine to compute data. Although her contribution was generally respected at the time, we now realise its true significance in anticipating the development of computer software, making Ada Lovelace the world's first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace Day also encourages us to remember the achievements of other women in STEM who have been overlooked in the past.

These include pioneering figures such as Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), an astronomer and the first woman to earn a salary from scientific work, and Mary Somerville (1780-1872), who presented a paper on magnetism to The Royal Society and published multiple scientific books. Rosalind Franklin's (1920-1958) contributions to the understanding of DNA in the 1950s were recognised at the time, although she was never nominated for a Nobel Prize. Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's structure, and Franklin's contribution to the research was largely undervalued until the late 20th century.

Even though current initiatives such as The WISE Campaign (Women Into Science and Engineering) have endeavoured to increase the number of women employed in STEM sectors, only 22 per cent of employees in the UK core STEM workforce were women in 2018. However, with 900,000 women employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as of 2018, WISE's goal of one million women in core STEM careers by 2020 still appears achievable.

Featured image: Ousa Chea on Unsplash