The Enchantress of Numbers; Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is the first Ada Lovelace Day, dedicated to the celebration of women in technology. =)

It’s interesting to think about the history of gender and computers. Ada Lovelace‘s work in writing algorithms and imagining the many applications of computers beyond simply crunching numbers. When computers first came into the workplace, computing was seen as a pink-collar job because it resembled the secretarial work that women did. Then the tide changed, and things progressed to the point where countless research papers were written about the gender imbalance in computer science and related fields. What was it about computing that was driving women away?

Now, perhaps, it’s shifting closer to balance, and that makes me happy.

I remember growing up on the networks, and then the Internet. My ambiguously-gendered name and my technical skill led a number of people to assume I was male, to the great amusement of people who knew otherwise. Upon people’s discovery that I was actually female, I’d often get hit on. At technical conferences, there were never lines for the women’s bathroom, sometimes I was the only female in the session, and female speakers were rare. Being female in a male-dominated field had its perks: on overseas programming competitions, I usually got a room to myself.

And yes, there was that niggling feeling of doubt that people found my early achievements disproportionately notable because of my gender, because I knew many brilliant people who didn’t get the opportunities I stumbled across. The imposter syndrome has many different shades.

To this day, I still get personal e-mail addressed “Dear Sir:” (and I’m not talking about the 419 scams, but people applying for positions or asking me for help). I still have people surprised to hear my (obviously female) voice when we talk on the phone. I still find myself reflexively checking the proportion of attendees and speakers at the conferences I go to.

I learned never to make gender assumptions in my speech and in my writing, and to enjoy turning other people’s assumptions upside down. (That’s one of the reasons I have a picture on my website.) I still come across technical documentation written exclusively with male pronouns, and it’s difficult to stifle the urge to rewrite it using plurals or alternating examples.

It’s a lot better than it used to be, though. I don’t have to worry as much about people hitting on me or misinterpreting what I say, although I don’t know whether that’s because the culture is changing, because I’ve developed ways to head things off before they get to that point, or because I tend to hang out with older people who are already in good relationships.

I’ve been very lucky. My parents made sure that we never thought of computers or other things as a “guy thing”. Growing up with two sisters who were both out there and doing cool things helped, too. I had plenty of role models, and I still do.

Not everyone has that kind of environment. No matter what gender you are, keep an eye out for people who might be excluded from your field of work. Sometimes it’s a little thing like lack of confidence leading to a wider and wider digital divide. Sometimes it’s a big thing, like an environment where picking on people is acceptable (and it shouldn’t be). We can be better people than that. =)