Inspiring the Next Ada Lovelace

If you were asked who the world’s first computer programmer was, who do you imagine? Would you be surprised to learn that it was a woman?

Born in London in 1815, Ada Lovelace was a talented mathematician. She was intrigued by the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, which many have deemed the first computer ever created. Further inspired by a paper written by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, she then went on to write an extensive sequence of mathematical operations, now known as the Ada programming language. Since, we have had Mary Allen Wilkes, who effectively made it possible for us to have personal computers. There was also Margaret Hamilton, who led the team that designed the software pivotal for landing the astronauts of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. More recently, Katie Bouman made headlines by designing an algorithm that allowed us to capture the very first image of the black hole. Women have played a fundamental role in shaping the industry of technology, and successes such as these are one of many reasons to celebrate women on this day, and every day. That said, we are still a long way off from equality. This is particularly true within the field of cybersecurity where only 20% of the workforce are women.

As such, we have been thrilled to take part in Mastercard’s Girls4Tech Program that has been teaching, mentoring and encouraging young girls to develop STEM skills, from writing algorithms to encryption, for five years running. It is through programs like Girls4Tech that we can do our part to break the stereotype suggesting that cybersecurity is a domain solely reserved for men.

Indeed, Sara Farquharson, a consultant in software engineering here at NuData Security, found that one of the biggest roadblocks she faced when getting into her career was imposter syndrome. Despite ranking top in her class, she never felt that she was a ‘real’ programmer. This is something she believes is a common problem for women “because the cultural shorthand for a smart coder still gives a very narrow image of who that could look like.” She was even close to giving up on her dream – “When I moved to a new city, I stopped applying to tech jobs altogether because I thought not spending all my free time hacking Linux kernels meant I couldn’t compete.” It was only after re-entering the industry and reading countless code by numerous people that she realized her technical skills was “always perfectly acceptable.” If anything, she had good problem-solving abilities that “more than make up for not having memorized every sorting algorithm.”

Moreover, because the stereotype of a programmer is typically male, assumptions are often made across the industry that women don’t really know what they are doing. Hanhan, our resident data scientist, found that this was her biggest challenge. Frequently, she would find people reaching out to her male colleagues for assistance despite being better qualified to advise. On one occasion at a previous company, although Hanhan was managing the majority of the workload, her former male manager made a male coworker the emergency contact for a project.

So, what else can be done to resolve this problem?

Sara argues that more companies within the industry should be actively seeking to recruit women for technical roles and building a collaborative environment “where people can admit mistakes and ask questions without blame”. She adds that “curating communities that encourage learning, rather than being combative and hostile to beginner questions, is another way to be more accessible to all sorts of people who may be put off by many older open source communities”.

In contrast, Hanhan offers a more methodological approach. She suggests using data science to learn how to effectively “create customised training and inspiring advertisements to motivate girls” to join the industry. Perhaps, even using virtual reality to “help girls imagine what an amazing future” they might have in technology. Moreover, data can also be used to identify and caution men who have acted on their bias against women, while encouraging the construction of a “mentorship bridge” between genders.

Until then, Sara has two pieces of advice for women thinking of joining the cybersecurity industry. First, “research salaries in your field and location, and practice asking for a fair salary with a straight face”. Second, take the initiative to find communities where you can learn and build a network, then return the favour when you have knowledge or connections to share. Finally, if all else fails, “practice the mantra ‘Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man’ and go in with the attitude that you are capable of learning anything”!

This is a complex problem, that we at Mastercard are committed to solving. We all need to play our part in removing barriers preventing girls from pursuing careers in tech as well as barriers in our organizations inhibiting their success. I subscribe to the “Be anything you want to be” adage. It is well overdue to close the global gender gap in STEM.

By Lisa Baergen, VP of Global Marketing