Taking stock of women in STEM on Ada Lovelace Day

Watercolor portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Source: Alfred Edward Chalon.

By Adriana Suarez-Gonzalez

October 13 is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Widely regarded as the first computer programmer, in 1842 Lovelace created an algorithm for Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer. Women continued to contribute to the foundation of computational sciences in the years following—particularly during and shortly after World War II. But female representation in STEM programs and careers remains low and scientists would like change that.

UBC computer science instructor Meghan Allen and software engineer Gail Murphy talk about Lovelace’s legacy, their own career paths, and how to encourage more women to pursue a career in computer science.

What inspired you to pursue a career in computer science?

Murphy: I have a tendency to not make decisions too early and computer science gave me the flexibility of taking different courses, like physics and English, before selecting a major. I also had experience with programming and enjoyed creating and trying new things, engaging with them and expressing them in a language. I saw programming as a tool to do lots of experiments at low cost while getting results almost instantly.

Allen: When I started my undergraduate degree in Science at UBC I wasn’t sure about the specific program I was going to take. After taking a course in computer science and enjoying learning from the professor, I decided to take more of these courses. I continued to enjoy the problem solving I was able to do in computer science and I eventually majored in computer science.

Does Lovelace's early work relate to your research?

Murphy: Lovelace was the first person to express things as programs, using symbols in a structured way to tell a computer—which existed only on paper at the time—what to do. In our lab, we build better languages, tools and graphics to express programs in more fluid ways so people can improve their creations. Our aim is to help those that consider programming a huge hurdle by offering them a smoother learning curve. This research is crucial for science since models that are too complicated to express in a programming language may result in inaccurate data. Also, programming languages for technology systems which are easy to use enable other programmers to build upon them, as in the case of creating phone apps.  

What can we do to increase the number of women in STEM fields?

Murphy: UBC has been a leader in supporting women in science, but we’re still trying to figure out how to increase engagement. Programs like GIRLsmarts4tech at UBC, which encourages girls in Grades 6 and 7 to explore computer science, should be offered throughout the high school years as well. I’d also like to see programs like those we offer through the American Computing Research Association offered in Canada. At CRA we organize town halls in webinar format, where students are mentored virtually while they learn about cutting edge research from leading women computer science researchers. The ‘special sauce’ for creating an inclusive environment is bringing together the diverse population of computer scientists from across the science, technology and engineering fields.

What is UBC doing to motive young women to pursue careers in computer science?

Allen: UBC Computer Science does a really good job of supporting women—our undergraduate female enrollment last year (27 per cent) was significantly higher than many other programs in North America. We support female students, faculty and staff by running a number of social and networking events throughout the year, as well as providing targeted learning opportunities. A big factor that helps support and attract many students, but in particular female students, is the flexible pathways we offer to a computer science degree. Combined computer science majors, which include courses in other science fields, arts or business, usually have a higher percentage of women. Our cognitive systems program, which combines computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology, has 52 per cent female enrollment. Our first year curriculum has also helped—Computer Science 110 doesn’t assume any programming background. It uses a programming language new to most students, leveling the playing field.

Learn more about computer science lessons for girls at GIRLsmarts4tech, donate to the Maria Klawe Endowment for Women in Computer Science or support our computer science scholarship.

Geoff Gilliard