For the love of Ada! 12 TV show pitches with a female engineering hero

25 07 2015

I always struggle with projects like this. I totally accept that women, “people of colour”, folks who self-identify their sexuality as something other than society might assume etc. are all under-represented in the mainstream, and are often still denied opportunities due to discrimination. Day-to-day ignorance can at best be annoying, and at worst down-right discriminatory.

This I do not dispute. Believe me – after a lifetime of using scissors designed for “normal” right-handers, I totally understand silent institutionalised discrimination, and the very real pain it can cause. Not to be flippant (being a left-hander is hardly causing me the same level of lost opportunities that being born female, even now in the 21st Century might), but there are many many forms of discrimination in this world, and not all are so obvious or acknowledged as is sexism. The power of these discriminations is that they are often unpremeditated. They are endemic in the way society behaves and defines “normal”. In the same way as having only right-handed scissors makes life awkward for me, expecting a nursing mother to use a smelly public toilet to feed the next generation, or only having steps to the entrance of a city building is not an active demonstration of cruelty. It is merely the result of catering for “the norm” and almost accidentally causing discrimination. The deliberate cruelty comes when such situations are recognised, acknowledged and still left unresolved.

On that level then, I applaud attempts to try and rectify the imbalance. The problem though is that it tends to do little to rectify the underlying issue. It simply addresses the results of the discrimination in one or two small, personal ways. This “positive discrimination” helps the beneficiary overcome the prejudice in one small situation – say a job opportunity – but does little if anything to address the underlying problem. This needs a much more slow and steady approach. And education. And consideration.

In the specific case of sexism for example, I firmly contend that to say “women are equal to men” is false. Indeed, in many ways and in many situations, women are far superior.

The real issue isn’t equality of the gender, but equality of opportunities available. There is no reason to exclude women from applying for even physically demanding jobs based on their gender. Based on some objective test of strength, capability, skill, sure, but not explicitly their gender. Many men would fail such tests too. The equality should be in the access to opportunity and the objective meeting of some requirement, not in being of a specific gender.

Particularly in intelligence or creative spheres, women are easily as capable as men, and there is no reason on Earth that women should not be better represented in the fields of say management, software development and car design. Here, the challenge is as much one of perception and the need is at least partially to encourage women themselves to not buy in to the mantra that “that’s a man’s job”. This project – to launch a TV show that has a central female character in an engineering-based role – is an attempt to address the latter. To have a role model for today’s young women that they can indeed excel in what may otherwise be still perceived as a male domain. The recent women’s FIFA World Cup tried for all its worth to portray strong female role models, and I wait eagerly to see if it has had any positive impact.

It was with some shaking of my head then that I read the pitches for the show. They can be found here: 12 TV show pitches centered around a female engineering hero.  Fashion designer Tilly Tailor? Really?! @Gnosis: Veronica Mars meets Gossip Girl meets Hackers? Oh dear Lord… These pitches say as much about the current low expectations of TV as they do about the continued stereotyping of women, but given the project’s goal, I expected more.

The clear leading contender for me was one based at least partially on a real female engineer… though she would never have been called that in her day. Only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace (after whom the programming language Ada was named) was real. As was Charles Babbage. He is much more well known in computing circles as the inventor of “The Differencing Machine” – the first attempt to have a programmable computing device. The technology of the time didn’t allow it to be completed but a working version is now on display in the UK’s Science Museum. Ada though… she developed the first algorithm, intended to run on the machine. Arguably she’s the mother of programming.

Mashable: Ada Lovelace

It’s not clear from the piece in Mashable whether the pitch is based on the recent graphic novel “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer”. I already have this on my goodreads “To Read” list. I’m waiting for the paperback version. It was only published in April. I hope so – the book looks like a rollicking good yarn by British graphic artist Sydney Padua.

It would behove new students studying computing to not just focus on the likes of Babbage, Von Neumann, Holerith, Turing etc., but also give Ms. Lovelace her due. Credit to my own teachers back in the late ’70s… she did indeed get a mention.

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2 responses

30 05 2016
DavID Payne

As I understand it, the Differenc(e/ing) Engine was NOT programmable or at least not software re-programmable as in the modern distinction between a calculator, (which it & eg. ENIAC was), and a stored program computer, (which Babbage’s unbuilt Analytical Engine was intended to be)! I believe Ada’s algorithm would have been for the Analytical Engine.

30 05 2016
Quieter Elephant

I think you’re right David – thanks for illuminating the difference. (Sorry – couldn’t resist).

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