Female role models in IT

07 March 2021

IT has a diversity problem. This is not due to the sector itself, nor a shortage of female role models. The main reason for the limited influx of women seems to be a wrong image of what an IT job involves. Unfortunately, two hundred years of female pioneering have not done anything to change this.

Subconsciously, young girls still live with gender stereotypes and this affects their choices.

Meet Ada Lovelace

Introducing Ada Lovelace as Lord Byron's daughter is not only paternalistic, it also does her an injustice. The fact that we don't have to introduce her father but we do Ada is a pity. Because, what Lord Byron was for romantic poetry, Ada Lovelace was for IT, i.e. a pioneer.

Lady Ada Lovelace, née Ada Byron, was born 206 years ago and is sometimes referred to as the very first computer programmer. Ada - a mathematician like her mother - wrote the first computer program for the so-called Analytical Engine of fellow mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage. Without getting stuck in the details we don't ourselves understand, we can safely say that Lovelace described, among other things, an algorithm that enabled Babbage's computer to calculate Bernouilli numbers independently. Lovelace's algorithm is recognised as the very first computer program. And that is not so far-fetched, as Lovelace's work still bears striking resemblances to how computers and algorithms work today. 

Without a doubt, Ada Lovelace is an important role model for women in IT and sciences. She is commemorated annually on the second Tuesday of October. Ada Lovelace Day is a celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Meet Ayla Cremmery

Ayla Cremmery, consultant at AE, for now does not have a day named after her, but she was awarded the title of Young ICT Lady of the Year 2021. This title is awarded annually by Data News readers and a jury to a woman under 35 with a meritorious and promising career in ICT. 

Ayla does not feel like a role model at all, although she is to many young girls with a passion for engineering and technology. I work in IT and now that I have that title, I will make my voice heard. I want to help underline the importance of inclusion and diversity. But I wouldn't describe myself as a role model', she confesses. The importance of the title is clear to Ayla: she has been given a platform and can help drive home the change. A lot has changed in terms of diversity in recent years. The steps to bring more women into our profession had already been taken before I ended up in IT, but we still have a long way to go.

Everything is becoming digital. But if your teams consist only of men, it is reflected in the software you develop.

Team diversity is a must

IT is still too much of a man's world, Ayla thinks. ‘Barely 17.2 percent of all IT people in Belgium are women. That is too few and is indeed a problem’, she says. ‘Everything is becoming digital. But if your teams consist only of men, it is reflected in the software you develop. It is made from one point of view and you notice that in the software itself. For example, if you were to have a colour blind developer in your team, the use of colours in a graph would be a bone of contention. Without that developer, you wrongly assume your graph is clear to everyone 

Artificial Intelligence will magnify the problem. ‘AI should be intelligent software that produces reliable data and results with minimal human intervention. This system is based on examples do draw conclusions from data. If there are biases in the examples, these biases will also be reflected in the conclusions. In other words, if we want reliable results we have to train it using diverse examples to avoid any biases being programmed’, explain Ayla. 

It is obvious for Ayla that not only the percentage of women in IT should go up, but also the percentage of people with different backgrounds.

We need to get young girls excited about STEM and show them you can do fun things in IT.

Image problem?

Despite the fact that Ada Lovelace was the first 'female' computer programmer almost 200 years ago, Ayla still experiences bias against women in a technical sector today. But these do not exist within the sector itself. Ayla has not experienced any positive or negative discrimination in her studies or work. She never felt she had to fight harder or prove herself because she is a woman in a man's world. "It's not easy choosing a discipline knowing that often you will be the only girl in the class. I understand this can be a barrier for other girls and that's a pity."

‘Maybe IT has an image problem. Youngsters do not have a clear picture of what a job in IT might involve, how varied it can be. Subconsciously, young girls still live with gender stereotypes and this affects their choices," says Ayla, who has a Civil Engineering Computer Science degree. 

Within IT, we are well aware of the need for diversity and inclusion and we are certainly open to it. The influx of women is the main problem. We're getting it wrong somewhere’, she says. 'We need to get young girls excited about STEM and show them you can do fun things in IT.' Titles such as the one awarded to Ayla can only help.

DNS Belgium likes to promote digital inclusion. The aim of is to collect and distribute laptops to help vulnerable youngsters develop their digital skills. But we also focus on STEM within and outside of education. Our collaborations with Ava and Trix and CoderDojo illustrate this.

With this article, we support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.