Ada Lovelace Day! | Vol. 2 / No. 50.2

Ada Lovelace | Drawing: Colin Adams, for the Ada Initiative, CC0
Ada Lovelace | Drawing: Colin Adams, for the Ada Initiative, CC0


Happy Ada Lovelace Day, one and all! Today’s the day of the year that everybody gets together and celebrates women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Why, you ask? Here goes:

Even in the good old US of A, women make up a much smaller percentage of the STEM workforce than men do. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report (chapter 3 of which is on women and minorities in the workforce), women in science and engineering still only make up 28% of the workforce. And when you get into the details, there are even worse statistics:

“The percentage of female S&E workers is lowest in engineering, where women constituted 13% of the workforce in 2010. Among engineering occupations with large numbers of workers, the disparity between men and women is greatest among mechanical engineers, with women accounting for only 7% of the workforce. Other large engineering occupations in which women account for about 11% to 12% of the workforce include electrical and computer hardware engineers and aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineers.”

Only a couple of areas were at or over parity: life sciences, at 48%, and social sciences, at 58%. (That last one’s a weird one, too, since it takes seemingly unrelated things together. So psychologists are 70% women, while economists are only 37% so).

And the thing is, there’s no good reason for it. Ever hear the old chestnut about women not being as good at math? It’s completely untrue. Here’s something from a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) to that effect. They asked three questions:

  1. “Do gender differences in mathematics performance exist in the general population?”
  2. “Do gender differences exist among the mathematically talented?” and
  3. “Do females exist who possess profound mathematical talent?”

And their answers were:

  1. “Contemporary data indicate that girls in the U.S. have reached parity with boys in mathematics performance,”
  2. “Studies find more males than females scoring above the 95th or 99th percentile, but this gender gap has significantly narrowed over time in the U.S. and is not found among some ethnic groups and in some nations. Furthermore, data from several studies indicate that greater male variability with respect to mathematics is not ubiquitous. Rather, its presence correlates with several measures of gender inequality. Thus, it is largely an artifact of changeable sociocultural factors, not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes,” (i.e. “yes, but it’s not biological in origin,”) and
  3. “We document the existence of females who possess profound mathematical talent” (otherwise known as “yes”).

To that third one, see also Maryam Mirzakhani, who won the 2014 Fields Medal (one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics) and whose work is still so far beyond me that I can’t do even a biosketch on her because I can’t explain why what she did is so important yet. I’m still planning on doing that.

So what is it that’s causing the disparity?

In a word: us.

A 2010 report by the American Association of University Women lays the blame squarely on society’s shoulders. From negative stereotypes about women’s ability to implicit bias against women in “male” fields, the report found that if we want more women in STEM fields, the most important thing we can do is all agree that women are totally, completely, 100% capable of doing anything a man can do.

So celebrate Ada Lovelace Day — check out the profiles we’ve been posting here on Valentina Tereshkova, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, and Jill Tarter (of SETI fame) — but also don’t limit it to just one day a year. Take time to look for, and notice, women in STEM fields, women who are changing the world not only with their work, but by setting an example. Check out the NASA Women of STEM site and the Women@NASA siteGo read the posts by Jennifer Ouellette at Gizmodo, read astrophysicist Katie Mack’s blog, or any of the many posts by the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla. Check out the Skepchick Network and check out Cara Santa Maria who’s now lending her talents to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. And write your own Ada Lovelace Day posts on your own blogs and facebook walls, tweet about great women in STEM and tell your friends about your favourite women in STEM.

Because if we want change, it’s going to have to come from us.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, folks, have a good one.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and Ada Lovelace Day) here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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