Ada Lovelace and the Impossible Expectations We Have of Women in STEM

Why are we so obsessed with our female role models' personal flaws?

December 10, 2015, marks the would-be 200th birthday of computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. Lovelace is credited with publishing the first computer algorithm and, more importantly, with grasping the real potential of machines that didn't actually exist in her own lifetime.

Lovelace's main legacy today is as a figurehead for women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM). But despite her place in history, conversation around Lovelace often veers toward the less scientific aspects of her life (when it's not outright trying to undermine her achievements). Rumours of affairs, gambling, and an addiction to prescribed opiates have made it into retellings of her story. She was the daughter of Lord Byron after all.

Suw Charman-Anderson, founder of Ada Lovelace Day, decries this focus on character over achievements, which she argues dogs the biographies of women in STEM much more than their male counterparts.

Would you question if a man's "character" might prevent him from making a groundbreaking discovery?

"I think the key difference that I see is an undue focus on women's flaws—flaws in their personality, mistakes that they've made," Charman-Anderson told me in a phone call ahead of a panel at a symposium held on occasion of Lovelace's bicentennial at Oxford, where she is speaking on the same issue.

She highlighted a BBC documentary in which mathematician Hannah Fry describes Lovelace, "Intelligent she might have been, but she was also manipulative and aggressive, a drug addict, a gambler and an adulteress."

"That's pretty harsh," said Charman-Anderson. Fry does go on to say, "It's a beautiful demonstration that whoever you are, whatever your character, there is a place for you in science." But this just highlights the pervasive double standard that places such import on women's personalities while giving men—particularly high-achieving men—something of a free pass. Would you question if a man's "character" might prevent him from making a groundbreaking discovery?

It's not just Lovelace. Charman-Anderson gave examples of other famous women in STEM whose work often seems to be presented as somehow tempered by personal flaws, such as the much-publicised controversy over first female Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie's love affairs.

"It sets up this false balance about, 'Well here's this amazing woman and she did these fantastic things, but actually she was a bit of a slut and she slept around with a married man'—that's what that's saying, right?" said Charman-Anderson.

Marie Curie and her husband Pierre. Image: Public Domain/Wikimedia

That's not to suggest the truth should be hidden, but to show how this apparent equivalence afforded women's personal and professional lives—recent research has shown that women are judged more on personal attributes in relation to their work than men—can be harmful in detracting from women's contributions to STEM fields and perpetuating a broader bias that continues to pervade society.

The criticisms of women in STEM's personal attributes echo the double standards we still see today: history paints Marie Curie in a harsher light than her married lover, physicist Paul Langevin, much as society still condemns women's promiscuity while accepting men's sexual antics.

"The message that sends is, well you can be brilliant like Marie Curie but you're still going to be a bitch, and you don't want that, do you?"

Other traits are also frequently interpreted as negative in women but neutral or positive in men, such as the prejudice that assertive women are bossy or difficult but assertive men have "leadership skills."

"The message that sends is, well you can be brilliant like Marie Curie but you're still going to be a bitch, and you don't want that, do you?" said Charman-Anderson. "That's kind of playing to this idea that women are supposed to be obedient and submissive and humble, and all of these traits that we don't see imposed on men."

This all panders to the view, often perpetuated through unconscious bias (and yes, by women too), that women are somehow different to men, and that this affects their ability to perform well in certain fields. If a woman does break through these stereotypes and achieves highly, her personality is instead criticised. It's lose-lose.

However, Charman-Anderson warns against going too far in the other direction, which she suggests has happened with Florence Nightingale, a British statistician and nurse who is best known as "the lady with the lamp" for her work tending to soldiers in the Crimean War. She might be shown in an overwhelmingly positive light, but some of her major scientific achievements seem to be less acknowledged than the vision of her as some sort of perfectly soft and fluffy angelic carer.

"A lot of narratives around Nightingale completely ignore the fact that she was a statistician, she invented the polar area graph, the line graph, and for the first time she used infographics to lobby government to change policy," Charman-Anderson said. "That gets kind of whitewashed out of the picture—they're very unfeminine things to do."

A polar area diagram by Florence Nightingale, showing causes of death in the army. Image: Public Domain/Wikimedia

What's the answer? We need to give women the same leeway we give men—not to ignore their flaws or cherry-pick their most appealing attributes but to accept that everyone has complex personalities and not to overstate the role of personal lives in professional narratives.

We also need to question prevailing narratives. Charman-Anderson admitted that she had largely accepted a common theme in writings on Lovelace's mother, Anne Isabella ("Annabella") Byron, as cold-hearted and cruel.

"When you think about where all that comes from, a lot of that narrative comes from Byron and Byron's fanboys—his reviewers, his biographers—who have a real motive to portray Annabella as this cold heartless harridan," she said.

All in all, Charman-Anderson advises scepticism and above all forgiveness of women's personal flaws as well as correcting our own biases. "Sometimes that means making apologies to Annabella Byron," she added.