Author Archives: Valerie Aurora

Sue Gardner: "In Silicon Valley we have on-site hair-cut buses and dry-cleaning and celebrity chefs, but we don't offer daycare"

Photograph of Sue Gardner speaking at Wikimania 2011

Sue Gardner, © Martina Nolte, CC BY-SA

Sue Gardner is a fearless feminist! She is also a seasoned leader who works actively to promote the contributions of women in the Silicon Valley tech sector. Sue was CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation for seven years, and served as a Senior Director in public broadcasting for many years before that. She was a founding member of the Ada Initiative's Board of Directors. We are grateful for her leadership, courage and support! Please join her in supporting the Ada Initiative, and donate now!

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"I worked in public broadcasting for the majority of my career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and we had a lot of women in positions of authority there," recalls Sue Gardner. "I had feminist role models, who invested in women. When I moved to the Bay Area to take over Wikimedia, I was astonished and honestly angry at the lack of women, everywhere!"

Gardner recalls her initial three-month tour of the Bay Area, getting to know key contacts in the tech and open source community. "I had dozens of meetings and in that time I did not meet a single woman who was not bringing us drinks in the board room or scheduling our meetings. At one point I started trying to place the year culturally in Silicon Valley tech – was it 1967? 1972?"

A woman speaking in front of a laptop

Valerie Aurora, CC BY-SA Adam Novak.

Puzzled and disturbed, Sue began searching for relevant articles and literature to give her a wider perspective and came across "How to Encourage Women in Linux", an article that Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora had written in 2002.

"It was so helpful to read because I could reverse-engineer out of it some of the main obstacles that were keeping women out of tech," she says. "And it was fascinating to me because it both addressed why there were so few women in Linux and also how to encourage the women who were braving the difficult environment. It gave specific examples of things not to do (i.e. don't tell sexist jokes) and also examples of pro-active actions to take (i.e. protest when others tell sexist jokes)."

Gardner was thrilled when Val and Mary committed themselves to working for women in tech full-time and founded the Ada Initiative. She was a member of the Board of Directors for three years and continues to serve on the Advisory Board.

"The founding of the Ada Initiative was so special and important because, first of all, somebody was putting up their hand to actually do something. And because Val worked on the Linux kernel, she came from inside and brought true subject matter expertise to bring to the issue. She really knew the terrain and the culture. To have both of those things – the gender expertise and the subject expertise was incredibly unusual. I was excited and got involved."

Mary Gardiner speaking with upraised hand

Mary Gardiner speaking at Wikimania, CC-BY-SA Alejandro Linares Garcia

Gardner brought the Ada Initiative in to help Wikimedia in a number of ways. "We asked them to help us design the Wikimania anti-harassment code of conduct and enforce it at the conference," she says. "They also ran an AdaCamp at Wikimania in late 2012. And Val vetted many of our technical job descriptions, as well as our hiring process so that Wikimedia tech positions were friendly to the women we wanted to attract."

When asked about her response to the tech industry’s dearth of women, Gardner responded with the broad perspective that comes with long-term experience. "I'm a boss. I run things. So I think a lot about effectiveness and efficiency and use of resources. From that perspective I find the situation offensive because there are only two things you can believe. You can believe that women are less capable than men or you can believe that women are undervalued. And that is wasteful. It offends me as a manager and a boss, that we would not make use of this resource, that we would stand by as women fall out of the pipeline."

80 women cheering and wearing many different colors, CC BY-SA Jenna Saint Martin Photo

All AdaCamps offer free childcare, CC BY-SA Jenna Saint Martin Photo

She goes on to talk about the irrationality that is encoded in much of tech culture – the decisions made by men in positions in authority based on what they need and desire. "It would serve us well, as funders and bosses to try to catch ourselves when we are being irrational," she says. "In Silicon Valley we have on-site hair-cut buses and dry-cleaning and celebrity chefs, but we don't offer daycare."

She is grateful for the Ada Initiative's work and the tangible impact and results that she has seen. "My experience with Ada is that they are doing really great work and it is long overdue and it needs to happen," she says. "This is not the kind of problem that gets solved by one intervention, but they are a key piece. Part of the value of Ada is that they make it safe for women to have these conversations – the kind of conversations that second wave feminists had in the business world decades ago. They put the conversation on the agenda and make space for them to happen."

We are so grateful for Sue's expertise, good words and support! Please join her in supporting the Ada Initiative and help us reach our 2014 fundraising goal, so we can continue to scale up our work!

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Free Ally Skills Workshop for attendees of LinuxCon Chicago August 21

Two women smiling wearing green badge lanyards

CC BY-SA Jenna Saint Martin Photo

Want to do your part in making the Linux community more welcoming to women and people of all sorts? Planning to attend this year's LinuxCon NA in Chicago? Then you should sign up for the free Ada Initiative's Ally Skills Workshop at LinuxCon, from 2:30pm to 5:30pm on Thursday, August 21st. Attendance is free to LinuxCon attendees (you must be registered for LinuxCon to attend).

The Ally Skills Workshop (formerly called the Allies Workshop) teaches men simple, everyday ways to support women in their workplace and communities, in an engaging, discussion-oriented format. After a brief introduction on basic principles of responding to sexism (choose your battles, practice simple responses, you don't have to be funny, etc.), we discuss real-world scenarios and figure out ways to respond to them. Here's one review:

Woman explaining while a man listens

Workshop discussion

"This was an amazing class. Great scenarios, great conversations. I really enjoyed not only the guided discussion, but break out conversations with co-workers were hugely enlightening. I'd love to have more honest and frank conversation along that line with [my colleagues]." – Joseph Bironas

People love the practical focus and walk away with skills they can use right away:

"I've already witnessed a couple of incidents where coworkers who attended the workshop corrected themselves after saying something that could be misconstrued." – Anonymous participant

"I liked how it focused on concrete actions and behaviors we could use immediately, not theory." – Ashley Penney

And other attendees learned new ways to think about and respond to sexism in general:

Smiling woman

Workshop leader Valerie Aurora

"The most useful thing I got out of the class was the underlying notion of asserting and defending community values when responding to sexism, rather than addressing the responsible individual directly." – Anonymous participant

While the workshop is aimed at teaching ally skills to men, it works best with at least 20% women in attendance, so we welcome people of all genders at the workshop!

Sounds like something you'd like to learn? Sign up for the Ally Skills Workshop at LinuxCon now. If you can't attend LinuxCon, contact us at contact@adainitiative.org to find out how you can run the workshop at your workplace.

LinuxCon features several other events to support women and newcomers in Linux, including the First Time Attendees' Reception and the Women in OSS luncheon. The Ada Initiaive's Executive Director will be attending as many of these events as possible as well as teaching the Ally Skills Workshop.

Looking forward to seeing you at LinuxCon and the Ally Skills Workshop!

Several people in discussion around a table

Allies workshop discussion

Applications open: AdaCamp Portland, June 21 – 22

Women in open tech/culture

CC-BY-SA Adam Novak

Applications for AdaCamp Portland are now open!

AdaCamp is a conference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture: open source software, Wikipedia-related projects, open data, open geo, library technology, fan fiction, remix culture, and more. AdaCamp brings women together to build community, share skills, discuss problems with open tech/culture communities that affect women, and find ways to address them.

AdaCamp Portland will be in downtown Portland, Oregon at the New Relic offices. The main track will be on Saturday June 21 and Sunday June 22, 2014, just before Open Source Bridge 2014. A shorter Ally Skills track for people who want to learn how to support women in open tech/culture will be on Monday June 23.

Apply to AdaCamp here

About AdaCamp

Five pointed star with a rainbow of colors and the word "AdaCamp"

AdaCamp is the world's only event focusing on women in open technology and culture, and is a project of the Ada Initiative, a non-profit supporting women in open technology and culture. Both are named after Countess Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. Attendance at AdaCamp is by invitation, with applications open to the public. Attendees will be selected based on experience in open tech/culture, experience or knowledge of feminism and advocacy, ability to collaborate with others, and any rare or notable experience or background that would add to AdaCamp.

Sponsorships

A limited number of conference sponsorships are available. Benefits include making a public statement of your company's values, recruiting opportunities, and reserved attendance slots for qualified employees, depending on level. Contact sponsors@adainitiative.org for more information.

Contact

If you have any questions, please email us at adacamp@adainitiative.org.

Breaking the Unicorn Law: Stop asking women in open tech/culture about women in open tech/culture

Have you heard of the Unicorn Law? Formulated by Emma Jane Westby, it states:

"If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source."

Tapestry of unicorn bucking in the midst of dogs and hunters

This unicorn has had enough

We recently read a post by a woman in open source software[1] that reminded us of the Unicorn Law. The author was nostalgic for the days before everyone was talking about sexism in open source, when she felt like she could fit in more easily in the open source community.

We sympathize – and so did many other folks. Over the last few years, people and organizations like Geek Feminism and the Ada Initiative have raised awareness of sexism in open technology and culture to the point that it can't be ignored. Now, women who used to be able to "fly under the radar" and concentrate on writing code or editing Wikipedia are getting pulled into the fight against sexism, whether they want to participate or not. (Of course, some women were never able to fly under the radar in the first place, especially if they were women of color, trans women, and/or women who dress in more feminine styles, to name a few.)

Medieval woodcut of a unicorn pawing at a woman's lap

Augh! I am so sick of unicorns!

Part of making open tech/culture more welcoming to women is not putting the responsibility for fighting sexism on every woman in these fields, whether or not she has the energy or interest to do so. Giving women an extra job in addition to their work in open tech/culture won't make it a better environment for them. (See the chapter on "How to Speak for All Black People" in Baratunde Thurston's "How to be Black" for a satirical take on a similar problem facing black people in the U.S.)

We think the solution to the Unicorn Law isn't asking people to stop working to end sexism in open tech/culture. Instead we should stop asking all women to be feminist activists. Here are some ways to do that.

Breaking the Unicorn Law

If you're curious about women in open tech/culture, that's great! But the time to learn about that is not when you meet a(nother) woman in open tech/culture. Don't say things to her like:

  • What is it like being a woman in $FIELD?
  • Why do you think there are so few women in $FIELD?
  • What do you think about $SEXIST_THING?
  • I know another woman in $FIELD, I will introduce you!
  • What do you think about $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD?

She'd probably rather be talking about Wikipedia or open hardware or whatever her field is. Even if her job is feminist activism, she's probably had these conversations many times before (which is one reason the Geek Feminism Wiki was started). Here's what you can do instead:

  • Search for blog posts, videos, and podcasts talking about what it's like to be a woman in $FIELD.
  • Search for "women $FIELD", "feminism $FIELD," or explore the Geek Feminism Wiki.
  • Find feminist thinkers and organizations that regularly write about $SEXIST_THINGS in your field and read what they write.
  • Introduce women in your field to people who can help their projects or careers, regardless of gender.
  • Search for "why $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD".

Of course, if she brings up the subject, go ahead and talk about it, while paying attention to her level of interest, what areas she wants to talk about, and when she's ready to change the subject.

Beyond the Unicorn Law: Slay some dragons

Woman in armor with dragon

Let's stretch this metaphor way too far!

Once you've learned more about sexism in your field, you may find yourself interested in actively working to stop sexism yourself. That is very cool! In fact, the only way we can end discrimination against women is if people of all genders voluntarily step up and take on some of the work. Here are some ideas for what to do next:

Fighting social injustice isn't easy, but we're making progress and together we can make a difference.


[1] We don't agree with all of this post!

HOWTO design a code of conduct for your community

Two women standing back to back smiling

Hurray for no jerks!
CC-BY-SA Adam Novak

Now that we know it is possible to go to conferences and not be insulted or harassed, people are starting to wonder: Why can't we have the same thing on mailing lists and wikis? Contributing to open tech/culture is WAY more fun when we don't have to put up with jerks!

We have good news: several open source software projects have adopted a community code of conduct, inspired by the success of conference anti-harassment policies. Besides making your project more pleasant and efficient for people already involved, a code of conduct attracts new people. The OpenHatch wiki explains it this way: "As a new contributor, you might prefer FLOSS communities where contributors pay attention to these sorts of social questions. Having a code of conduct is often an indicator that a project has a sizeable number of contributors and interested in growing."

Two community codes of conduct we especially like are the Django code of conduct and the Rust code of conduct. Why? Because these codes of conduct:

  • List specific common behaviors that are not okay
  • Include detailed directions for reporting violations
  • Have a defined and documented complaint handling process

Without these elements, a code of conduct isn't worth the electrons used to display it on your computer screen. In fact, a code of conduct that isn't (or can't be) enforced is worse than no code of conduct at all: it sends the message that the values in the code of conduct aren't actually important or respected in your community.

Designing a community code of conduct

So you've decided you want a code of conduct for your open tech/culture community! Here are some of the questions you should expect to answer while writing a community code of conduct:

Who adopts and enforces your community code of conduct? With conferences, the answer is easy: the conference organizers. In an online community, the answer to "Who is in charge around here?" is often much harder to figure out. Many open tech/culture communities consider this lack of structure to be a feature, not a bug, making it even more of a challenge. However, most open tech/culture projects do have people in positions of leadership who can enforce policies if they were inclined to do so. Some examples of people in roles who can adopt and enforce policies are foundation board members, employers of project members, mailing list administrators, code maintainers, IRC operators, wiki administrators, and anyone who decides how to spend money associated with a project. Employers usually already have policies that apply to their employees' behavior, but they often aren't enforced when it comes to their participation in open tech/culture projects.

What are the consequences for violating your code of conduct? At a conference, the organizers control access to the physical space, so penalties are easy: asking the person to either apologize or leave the conference, or stopping a speaker's talk, for example. Penalties for violating an online code of conduct are more complicated and varied: perhaps banning them from an IRC channel (chat room), or removing their wiki editing privileges for a few days, or unsubscribing them from a mailing list. Often these forums are administered and controlled by different groups who disagree about what harassment is or what the response should be, which is part of why it is important to write down what your community standards are. Also, it is much easier to get around enforcement by creating a new online identity than it is to change your appearance and sneak into a physical conference. (This isn't a reason not to have a code of conduct, just something to plan for.)

Who decides what actually violates the code of conduct? At a conference, the answer is the conference organizers. In an online community, many decisions are made in ad-hoc discussion where the loudest voices often prevail – and often the loudest voices are the ones arguing in favor of harassment. For example, here is a question that often deeply divides an open source community: Are jokes about penises okay or not? You may think the answer is obvious, but some programmers think the answer is yes, and other programmers think the answer is no. Whatever your stance on penis jokes is, you're going to have to explicitly tell people what it is in your code of conduct because you can't take it for granted that people know what it is. A related point is that sometimes it is the argument over whether something is harassment that makes people leave, not the harassment itself.

Some more encouragement to get specific

In our experience at the Ada Initiative, getting specific about what's not okay is both the most effective and the most cringe-inducing part of writing a code of conduct. Nobody wants to be "negative" – but it's exactly what you need to make potential victims of harassment feel confident and safe in joining the community and in reporting violations. If I, as a new participant, don't know whether the people enforcing the code of conduct think unwelcome sexual advances over IRC are considered okay, I'm not going to take the risk of reporting them and getting scolded for being "thin-skinned." Instead, I'm just going to leave and find a project where I can work on my software in peace.

Here's what I wrote in response to one proposed code of conduct that didn't get specific on what wasn't allowed:

I think this code of conduct won't have the impact you are looking for as a result of a basic design choice: to not list what's not allowed in a specific manner. 90% of the effect and work is in being specific, for several reasons:

The major weapon of harassers is arguing whether something is actually harassing. It is difficult to enforce a CoC if you have to have a month long nasty argument about whether it was violated. It burns out people like you.

It encourages people to report when they are certain they will be taken seriously and not dismissed or argued with.

The list of "don'ts" educates people on what to do, so you avoid problems in the first place.

Finally, it sends a signal to people considering joining your community in a way that "be nice" does not. "Be nice" is a signal to harassers that they can use tone arguments and otherwise play on people's desires to be nice to get away with stuff. For example, Wikipedia's "Assume good faith" is regularly abused by people not acting in good faith. Asking people to attempt resolution by discussion is used both as a delaying tactic and a way to abuse people longer.

Go forth and adopt

Mary and Valerie laughing

Mary and Valerie

Now that you've learned a little more about designing community codes of conduct, it's time to go advocate for one in your community! We recommend starting with the Django code of conduct or the Rust code of conduct. Take a look also at the comparison of codes of conduct on the Geek Feminism Wiki. And if you need some advice on getting over the rough patches, we encourage you to email us at contact@adainitiative.org and we will happily work with you.

The Allies Workshop: Learn to support women in open tech/culture in real time

Want to do something when you see casual sexism at work, but aren't sure what? Tired of feeling helpless when you read a sexist email to your community's mailing list, but have no idea how to respond?

The Allies Workshop is for you! The Ada Initiative Allies Workshop teaches simple, everyday ways to support women in your workplace and communities. Participants learn techniques that work at the office, at conferences, and online.

About the workshop

Several people in discussion around a tableThe format is interactive and engaging (one participant asked, "Can we get more training like that?"), with a short intro followed by discussion in small groups about real-world scenarios. Some examples: a colleague writes "Pretend you are explaining this to your girlfriend" in an email, you see a man take credit for a woman's idea in a meeting, or you want to help a newcomer feel comfortable at her first conference. The default scenarios are aimed at people involved in open tech/culture, but we also customize scenarios for each workshop.

Get the workshop

To get the Allies Workshop at your organization, email contact@adainitiative.org for more information and a quote. So that we can afford to teach more workshops, we usually charge a fee to teach this workshop, with a variety of discounts for non-profits, small companies, and making seats available to volunteers and community members. We also teach a "train-the-trainers" class so that the Allies Workshop can reach more people in your organization.

What people are saying about the workshop

A woman explains while a man listensHere's what participant Jan-Bart de Vreede said: "The workshop helped identify situations which really happen. In my (sheltered) world I often don’t see the kind of behaviour that was illustrated and it was interesting to be able to discuss the situations with the people present. I notice it has made me a little more alert to that kind of situation in my own environment."

Several participants said the most valuable outcome was learning how to have discussions about sexism with their colleagues comfortably and respectfully. Peter Van Hardenberg told us that the Allies Workshop "helped me to improve my understanding of the issues women and other visible minority communities can face in their daily lives and provided me with a framework for having supportive, honest and open conversations about them."

More ways to get the workshop

If you can't attend a workshop in person, we have several resources for you, all licensed CC BY-SA, meaning you can use, copy, modify, and redistribute them for free as long as you give credit to the original authors:

Ada Lovelace conference report-out

Last week was the world's first conference celebrating the achievements of Countess Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer. Ada Initiative Executive Director Valerie Aurora attended and has this report-out:

Three women squinting into the sun

Dr. Robin Hammerman, Sydney Padua, and Valerie Aurora (CC-BY SA Dr. Robin Hammerman)

I never thought I'd have breakfast with two Ada Lovelace experts, much less go to an entire conference full of them! The first conference celebrating Ada Lovelace's life and accomplishments was everything I had hoped for: a wide variety of papers and discussions on Lovelace's work, the science fiction inspired by her life and times, issues affecting women in computer science, and the broader societal implications of her story.

One of our goals at the Ada Initiative is to give women varied and interesting role models in open technology and culture. This conference showed Ada Lovelace as a complex, multi-dimensional person who lived an exciting (if short) life. Besides writing an incredibly prescient paper on the potential of computing, she rode horses, played the harp, bet way too much money on horse races, had secret affairs, went to all the best scientific salons, suffered through various health problems, and was both close friends and colleagues with one of the most interesting people in Victorian-era society, the scientist, mathematician, and engineer Charles Babbage.

When I was a university student studying computer science and mathematics, I always resented the pressure to focus only on programming and give up my interests in music, literature, and art. I felt like I finally fit in at this conference, which was intentionally interdisciplinary, much like the host university, the Stevens Institute of Technology. The Ada Lovelace conference was a perfect fit for Stevens, which is engineering-oriented but strongly values an education in the arts and humanities as well.

Black and white poster with cartoon Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage holding silly sci-fi guns with the text "Lovelace and Babbage: They Fight Crime"

Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage comic

For me, the highlight of the conference was getting to meet Sydney Padua in person, the artist behind The Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I couldn't believe our luck when she agreed to help the Ada Initiative's very first fundraiser by creating a custom print for our Seed 100 donors and I was looking forward to thanking her in person. Sydney had many interesting and insightful things to say about the Lovelace-Babbage friendship, historical trends in their reputations, and changes in the gender ratio of computer animators. She also gave us a sneak preview of her upcoming graphic novel!

My keynote address, "Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos," was well-attended, thanks in part to it being part of the Provost's Lecture Series on Women in Leadership and open to the public. The talk was recorded and we will post it on the Ada Initiative web site when it is available (with captioning, of course).

Two women, a river, and downtown Manhattan

Sydney, Valerie, and the Manhattan skyline (CC-BY SA Dr. Robin Hammerman)

The faculty of the host university, the Stevens Institute of Technology, were all incredibly warm and welcoming, especially the conference organizer, Dr. Robin Hammerman. She told me that Stevens recently succeeded in increasing the percentage of women students to 30%, quite an accomplishment in a technology-oriented institution. Their dedication and creativity in making their school more attractive to and supportive of women gives me hope for the Ada Initiative's goals and women in STEM in general. (Plus they have a fantastic view of downtown Manhattan from half of campus!)

Thank you to everyone who made this event possible: all the speakers, Stevens Institute of Technology, and Dr. Robin Hammerman especially!

Rikki Endsley interviews Ada Initiative executive director for USENIX ;login:

Valerie Aurora

Valerie Aurora

Rikki Endsley interviewed Ada Initiative executive director Valerie Aurora for ;login: magazine, a monthly magazine from the USENIX Advanced Computing Association. Rikki has written extensively on women in open source over the years, including a blog post many of our readers may be familiar with, "To my daughter's high school programming teacher."

Rikki interviewed Valerie about her career as a file systems developer, the Ada Initiative, and the on-going Linux kernel civility discussion, spearheaded by Linux USB developer Sarah Sharp.

An excerpt from one of Valerie's answers in the interview about the Linux civility discussions:

I’m one of hundreds of Linux kernel developers, past and present, who agree with Sarah Sharp’s request [for more civility in Linux kernel development] — she's just the person brave enough to directly call for change from Linus Torvalds and other community leadership. I was a little horrified to see how many top-notch kernel developers spoke up to say that this is one reason why they dropped out of kernel development. So I’m thrilled to hear this will be a topic of discussion at the next Linux Kernel Summit. I hope that other kernel developers will join her in standing up for a working environment without abuse.

I think Linus [insisted on the value of hostile discussion] based on the information he has. For example, he’s probably not aware of research showing that people’s intuition that performance improves after severely criticizing someone is wrong: any improvement in performance is due to random chance, what many people are familiar with as "regression to the mean." It turns out that when you evaluate the effect of criticism vs. praise on performance scientifically, praise is the clear winner. We as computer programmers should use the same scientific logical approach to community management as we do for software development.

Read more at the USENIX web site.

Deleting Ada Lovelace from the history of computing

This is a repost of our Ada Lovelace Day 2012 article on the attempts to delete Countess Ada Lovelace from the history of computing, with minor updates and an announcement of the first Ada Lovelace conference in October 2013.

Ada Lovelace portrait

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (full name: Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace) is a familiar figure in the history of computing. She is the world's first computer programmer, writing the instructions to carry out a computer program on what would have been the world's first computer if it had been built – the Analytical Engine, designed by famous inventor Charles Babbage.

Lovelace published the first computer program in a paper in 1843. Her paper was presented as "notes" on a previous, less complete paper on the subject which she also translated, but her "notes" were longer than the original paper and were considerably more insightful. She spent many months perfecting the paper, writing letters back and forth with Charles Babbage to check her work.

The depressing part? Some people argue that Lovelace did not write the first computer program, that Charles Babbage wrote it for her and she took the credit. Despite ample contemporary evidence in the form of Lovelace's letters to Babbage while she was writing the Notes, people have many arguments (often tinged with anger and contempt) for why she didn't write or even understand the first computer program.

A full length oil portrait of a woman in 19th c. dress

Ada Lovelace: stupid, arrogant, and insane?

Arguments against Lovelace's authorship include: Lovelace made mathematical mistakes when she was learning mathematics, Lovelace failed to correct a mathematical error introduced by a printer in a reprint of someone else's work, Lovelace was literally insane, Lovelace had too high an opinion of herself, etc.

Interestingly, these arguments are rarely used to question men's authorship of joint works; indeed mental instability or difficult personalities sometimes seems to add to the reputation of male scientists and mathematicians (Nikola Tesla, John Nash, and Isaac Newton, to name just a few). Certainly I've personally never seen a single published mathematical error (actually, in her case merely failure to correct someone else's error) used as an argument against a male scientist's competency as a whole.

As another example of the lengths to which Lovelace's critics will go, Charles Babbage's biography, written long after Lovelace's death, has this statement on Lovelace's paper:

I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea's memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced: I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

People argue that "the algebraic working out" of the numbers of Bernoulli means that Babbage wrote the program to calculate the numbers of Bernoulli. Yet the paper contains an actual algebraic equation for calculating the numbers of Bernoulli – separate from the computer program – which would seem much more likely to be what Babbage is referring to.

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, CC BY-SA Canticle

More contemporary evidence in Lovelace's favor includes her extrapolations of what a general purpose computer could do, which stretched far beyond Babbage's ideas for its use (printing mathematical tables, mostly). She even proposed that computers could make music – definitely not Babbage's idea, since he was famous for his passionate hatred of music. The Computer History Museum's biography of Ada Lovelace says:

The idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that number could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation. Ada was the first to explicitly articulate this notion and in this she appears to have seen further than Babbage.

On balance, the evidence would suggest, if anything, that Babbage was the person who did not fully understand the computing capabilities of his invention and Lovelace had the greater knowledge.

A woman in 18th c. French dress seated at a table with a book and holding a compass

Émilie du Châtelet

In the end, most arguments that Lovelace did not write the first program only make sense in the context of a common assumption: in any partnership between a man and woman, the man did the important work and the woman assisted and polished. Look at Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet. Du Châtelet was a pioneer in the new discipline of physics, publishing several seminal papers in physics, a physics textbook, and a translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica. Voltaire and du Châtelet were long-term collaborators in the areas of physics and mathematics, working closely on many works, as well as lovers. However, Voltaire's primary or sole authorship of many of their joint works is rarely questioned.

As one example, only Voltaire's name appeared on a book he published, of which he later wrote, "Minerva dictated, and I wrote." Voltaire often referred to du Châtelet as Minerva (interesting in itself as it suggests that du Châtelet was a channel for the goddess of wisdom rather than the originator of her ideas). Is there any serious contention that Voltaire was not the primary author of his publications during the time he collaborated with du Châtelet? No. Was there plenty of evidence that she contributed significantly to his published works? Yes.

A book cover reading "How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna Russ"How to Suppress Women's Writing" by Joanna Russ shows the patterns in how people dismiss women's writing: "She didn't write it. She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art," ad nauseum. The exact same arguments are used by people trying to dismiss Lovelace's programming, right down to "She wrote it but she isn't really a programmer, and it isn't really a program."

Lovelace's current Wikipedia page reflects the effect of thousands of people arguing against giving credit to Lovelace: "[...] She is often considered the world's first computer programmer" – unfortunately, probably the most positive statement we can reasonably expect. But what Lovelace needs is not a better Wikipedia page, but a better biography.

Cover of book reading "Ada, Enchantress of Numbers; Poetical Science; Betty Alexandra Toole"The most evidence-based biography, "Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers," by Betty Alexandra Toole, quotes heavily from Lovelace's letters, but is written by someone without a deep understanding of computing. Other biographical works are written by people who appear to be heavily biased against Lovelace, often making extremely critical personal judgements and sweeping statements contradicting contemporary evidence without citing evidence to the contrary.

We're beginning to make progress, though: the first Ada Lovelace conference is scheduled for October 18, 2013 at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. Created by Dr. Robin Hammerman, this conference will celebrate "Lovelace’s many achievements as well as the impact of her life and work, which reverberated through the sciences and humanities since the late nineteenth century. This conference heralds a recent resurgence in Lovelace scholarship thanks to the growth of interdisciplinary thinking and the expanding influence of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics." Ada Initiative executive director Valerie Aurora will be giving a keynote address, "Rebooting the Ada Lovelace Mythos."

We should not be denigrating women's accomplishments in science based on specious arguments about personality, occasional errors, and collaborations with men. That's one of the purposes of Ada Lovelace Day: to bring recognition to women who have had credit for their accomplishments stolen from them.


Help give Ada Lovelace the credit she deserves

A glass pendant with a black and white portrait of Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pendant (click for larger image)

The Ada Initiative, named after Ada Lovelace, is working hard to give women the credit they deserve in many areas: open source software, Wikipedia, open data, and others. You can be part of this fight by donating to support our work and learning more about how you can help. You can also read about our accomplishments during the last year and our plans for the future. Donate before August 31st to get the Ada Lovelace pendant.

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First matching donation challenge: $500 from PalominoDB

PalominoDB logoOur first matching donation challenge comes from a woman-led open source services company! PalominoDB provides ongoing operational support and professional services around MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Cassandra with a focus on open-source technologies. Palomino also provides full stack support in in virtualized and cloud environments.

PalominoDB will match up to $500 of donations to the Ada Initiative in the next 24 hours, until 3pm PDT August 20th (22:00 UTC August 20).

Update: Our donors met the entire match within 5 hours! Thank you to PalominoDB, Pamela Chestek, Annalee Flower Horne, Robin Zebrowski, and two Anonymous Donors for raising $1000 to support women in open technology and culture. (You can still donate, of course!)

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Laine Campbell, PalominoDB CEO

PalominoDB CEO Laine Campbell says, "Palomino supports the Ada Initiative because they are a woman-owned non-profit that is always striving to bring more women into their technology, support and leadership teams. As CEO, I've experienced the challenges of breaking into tech as a woman, as well as encouraged other women to grow, contribute and participate in the technical ecosystem. We're excited to support and contribute to the Ada Initiative with its focus on open source community and technology."

We are thrilled to be partnering with PalominoDB to support women business owners and founders. Our Impostor Syndrome training program helps women more accurately judge their abilities, and our AdaCamp unconference introduces women to other open tech/culture entrepreneurs and potential co-founders.

Join PalominoDB and Ada Initiative in supporting women in open source, open data, and other areas of open tech/culture! Donate now:

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