How do we think about the influence within the context of age, gender and race? How often should we think about it? How do we put the conversation in the proper context? How do we avoid being caught in a trap of only celebrating the same individuals when trying to call attention to a larger, systemic issue?
These are all big questions, and were sparked by the Ada Lovelace Day Celebration, taking place on March 24th. The concept behind the day is to celebrate women in technology and their achievements, to provide both inspiration and to call attention to the fact that while women have embraced all career fields, including technology, it still appears there’s issues in getting women seen in the forefront of the field, including as matter of course. You’ll have articles calling attention to women in the industry, but it seems to me that it’d be a lot more fulfilling if were considered without having to push extra or create special articles about them. As well, the same women seem to get lauded over and over again, understandably so, but it’d be nice to see people dig into the guts of businesses and determine who is actually building things and making useful technology for the rest of us.
This problem has been especially well commented on with regards to tech conferences, where it’s easier for a woman to use the bathroom (due to less women in attendance) than it is to get on the speaker roster. It does seem that conference organizers do try and reach out, but it doesn’t always come to fruition. Many times, the same faces show up again and again, often because they are the ones that get asked, or that know organizers, or perhaps because they actually say yes.
However, none of these bigger questions answer the request from the Ada Lovelace organizers, which is to celebrate a woman in technology. Rather than pick a woman specifically running a company, or building something (although I will admit to being completely tongue-tied when introduced to Kim Polese a few years ago), I thought it would be useful to look for someone who contributed to something behind the scenes.
In order to pick someone like this, it was necessary for me to think about the things that help run business, the analysis that can be performed to best do various jobs, and a skill that runs across many disciplines. One discipline that fits the bill is statistics. Researching female statisticians led me to Florence Nightingale David, who wrote a classic treatise on game theory – Games, Gods & Gambling. (Never heard of game theory? It’s definitely an under-pinning of an algorithm or two.) She also worked as the Chair of the Biostatistics department as UC-Riverside. Every reference to Florence talks about how she ended up in her field, when someone explained they wouldn’t hire her since she was a she. Thankfully, undaunted, she went on to publish multiple books, academic papers and monographs.
Women, including myself, need to learn from the example of creating tools for ourselves and to find other paths when one way is blocked. It does mean that we need to look for opportunities to promote and integrate ourselves into the overall consciousness so that we are not seen as separate, or requiring extra effort. Truthfully, the same could be said for any group not in the mainstream, when it can be hard to pull ourselves out of the fast-moving river where it’s easier to float along without thinking.
Personally, I’m hopeful that Ada Lovelace day shows a diversity of women to emulate, admire and celebrate, and that we don’t get caught in looking only at the top of the field, at the moment, without reflecting on who laid down the road.