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Tell Your Story

Linda Macaulay

Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is an annual worldwide celebration of women and diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), that is dedicated to the woman behind our College’s name, Ada Lovelace.

This year, to mark ALD, we are asking all our industry partners to contribute towards our Tell your Story Campaign. This campaign seeks to highlight women in tech and help others learn more about their experiences in pursuing a digital career path.

Linda Macaulay, Emeritus Professor in Computation, University of Manchester, UK shares her story:

I’ll never forget that momentous day in 1967 when I saw my first computer. Aged 17, I was awestruck that a machine could carry out instructions and, what’s more, it could carry out my instructions. I simply asked it to add two numbers together, told it how to do it and, to my amazement, it displayed the correct answer. I could do it over and over again with different numbers, and it was always right. I was hooked for life.

Computers have changed immensely in my lifetime: they’ve got faster, smaller, more intelligent, and they’ve become networked and embedded in everyday objects. They have been central to my development and as they have changed, so has my life.

It is my belief that computers have the potential to enhance people’s lives if only we can understand how best to keep the needs of humans at the heart of their design. In fact, I’ve spent my whole life learning about the interaction between computing technology, which changes constantly, and people who, fundamentally, don’t change that much. 

Early childhood experiences laid the foundation of my values. I learned that you have to be determined and hard-working to make something of yourself. State education provided the opportunity for me, a working-class girl, to achieve financial independence and ultimately become a professor at one of the top universities in the UK.

I always enjoyed maths at school and the computer’s logic fitted with my way of thinking. I learnt scientific programming as an undergraduate. Then, as a postgraduate, I studied more technical ‘low-level’ programming that enabled me to understand the internal workings of the computer itself.  

My first job was as an Applications Programmer in a hospital working as part of a small team designing and implementing a system to support ward rounds. I learned that programming was relatively easy compared to understanding and designing a system that fitted with the complex and highly varied needs of doctors and nurses.

In another hospital, working with pathologists, I wrote programs to gather data from various machines, standardise the readings and collate the results into a single report. Doctors based their decisions on these reports and I learned that their accuracy could have life or death consequences, and hence the importance of rigorous testing.

I learned that, as a programmer, it’s important to be professional and think about the ethics and morality of what you are doing. I thought then and think now that all programmers and designers should have to abide by an ethical code of conduct.

Learning how to program and how computers work enabled me to understand new technologies quickly. I endeavoured to learn more about people through psychology, sociology, and behavioural sciences as well as through practice. Developing new techniques for human-centred design has been the focus of my academic career.

But things were not always easy. Being a woman in a predominantly male profession meant I had to be strategic about my career choices, be skilful in building teams and networks and be determined to create a leadership style that fitted with my values. Being a woman, wife and mother meant I had to be resilient and work that much harder. Yet society desperately needs more women in the profession.

Technology is not neutral; what is written in code has an impact on real lives. 

Consider the case of PureGym cited in ‘Technically Wrong’ by Sara Wachter-Boettcher in 2017 where a simple IF...THEN…ELSE statement results in a young woman being locked out of the women’s changing room. 

‘Title’ was used as a determinant of access rights:

The code on the door entry system of the women’s locker room read:

IF {title = Miss, Mrs, Ms} THEN open door ELSE show red light

And on the door of the men’s locker room

IF {title = Mr, Master, Doctor} THEN open door ELSE show red light

The young woman had recently qualified as a doctor and had proudly given ‘Doctor’ as her title. Unfortunately it resulted in ‘show red light’ and her being denied entry to the locker room. Had she been a man then ‘Doctor’ would result in ‘open door’. 

This simple illustration shows how easy it is to build bias into code either intentionally or unintentionally. (The same code was used in all ninety gyms in England at the time). Everyone is biassed in some way, so if software is designed primarily by one section of society then it will reflect their bias.

Would a woman in tech do anything different from a man in tech? 

A woman could do all the things a man could do but the key point is about the balance of power between male and female perspectives. It’s about including a diversity of views in the purpose of new technologies, their design and how and why data is collected and analysed. 

We need women to contribute to digital innovation by bringing a broader skillset and new perspective to human interaction with computers and to address the needs of wider society by shedding light on the bias inherent in Artificial Intelligence, historic data and algorithms.

We need more tech women to work their way up the career ladder, so they can influence the rationale behind new technologies and be involved in design decisions. Stop the overarching design-by-men-for-men deep-rooted in the industry and shift the balance to design by men and women for the wider good of society and all our futures.

To quote the Algorithmic Justice League “We want the world to remember that who codes matters, how we code matters and that we can code a better future.” .