The Ada Lovelace Legacy
Philip Ellison 16 October, 2014 at 10:10
This week, the tech world celebrated Ada Lovelace Day. Daughter to Lord Byron, Lovelace was a trailblazer in the field of mathematics, dubbed “the enchantress of numbers” by Charles Babbage. And while she was known for little more than her famous lineage in her own lifetime, she has since been recognised as an instrumental figure in the history of computing.
Journalist Suw Charman-Anderson launched Ada Lovelace Day (14th October) to celebrate her achievements and to promote diversity in the world of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – something which, over 160 years after Lovelace’s death, is still behind the times. “For me, the most important thing about Ada is that she really embodies the struggles that women still go through,” she says.
You need look no further than this week’s headlines to see that struggle. In an attempt to procure more female talent, tech giants Facebook and Apple are now offering women the option to freeze their eggs, supposedly to allay concerns that they will need to make a choice between their careers and having a family. “Apple cares deeply about our employees and their families, and we are always looking at new ways our health programmes can meet their needs,” said a spokesperson. “We continue to expand our benefits for women, with a new extended maternity leave policy, along with cryopreservation and egg storage as part of our extensive support for infertility treatments… We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.”
This latest ‘perk’ has been met with widespread cynicism. In an industry reportedly plagued by institutionalised ageism, is it a helpful message to send to employees, male or female, that your prime years are best spent first and foremost at work? And now that this procedure is on offer, will a degree of unspoken pressure be placed on new hires? “This is a nice perk but of course it’s a very personal decision for every working woman,” Women In Technology representative Kellye Sheehan told USA Today. “You can’t let your employer force you into something that doesn’t fit your values or personal choices.”
Meanwhile, Eleanor Morgan at VICE writes: “While Silicon Valley’s move should be applauded for providing options for women in a world that still needs some pretty huge mountains toppled – and while it may not be about bringing a sea change to the system – it also has more than a faint whiff of serving to enforce an obsessive work mentality… I would find it hard not to feel pressure to freeze my eggs, at 30, rather than just deciding, when the time was right, to remove myself from the workplace for a bit to be someone’s mum.”
It is undoubtedly a good thing that large tech companies want to encourage more women to join them, and in doing so set an example for the rest of the industry. But perhaps there are other means of achieving this; means that don’t involve medical procedures and an implicit, vaguely dystopian obligation.