I got another email from the White House today, and I thought I’d share. As always, my thoughts are in italics.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the U.K. Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. How nice for you. The closest I ever got was a pub a few blocks away. Of course, I was in the UK for more than a junket, so I guess we’re even.
During a tour of the residence, we were shown a painting of an elegantly dressed woman. “Of course, you know Lady Lovelace,” we were told. I’ll bet half of you thought she was a porn star, didn’t you?
Imagine our surprise to learn that we were staring at a portrait of the woman who is considered to be the world’s first programmer. Our group had never heard of her. Wait, seriously? You’re the “U.S. Chief Technology Officer” and you didn’t know who Ada Lovelace was? Never heard of the Ada programming language? Seriously, you’re older than I am, and I know that. What exactly did you learn at MIT, anyway?
Ada Lovelace’s experience remains all too familiar: So many of the breakthrough contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields continue to go untold, too often fading into obscurity. Like I said, if you’ve been in technology long enough to remember Y2K, then you have no excuse not knowing who Lady Lovelace was. If you do know and aren’t passing it on without a government program, then shame on you.
Join us in doing something to change that: Listen to women from across the Obama administration share the untold stories of women who’ve inspired us. I’ll pass, thanks. Want to pass on stories to inspire people? Try leaving your ivory tower and go teach at a disadvantaged school. And no, Chautauqua and MIT aren’t disadvantaged schools. Pass on what you’ve learned, and learn what happens beyond the Beltway or Silicon Valley.
Then add an untold history of your own, and make a commitment to share these stories in any way you can to help inspire more young women and men to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Here’s my inspiration: A lot of people, who were willing to learn, keep learning, and learn how to apply what they’ve learned, have gone on to make a lot of money in engineering, science, technology, and mathematics. Some of them even found it interesting. If that doesn’t inspire you, then maybe women’s studies really is for you.
Women were central in the early teams building the foundation of modern programming. They unveiled the structure of DNA. Their work inspired new environmental movements and led to the discovery of new genes. It’s past time to write their stories permanently into history, so they can stand side by side with the extraordinary men like them who have used their technical and innovation skills to bring needed solutions and discoveries to our world. Can’t disagree with you here. Lots of women have worked their butts off for hundreds of years, and yeah, it sucks that many of them didn’t get credit for their work. But, hey, guess what? If you work your butt off now, not only will you probably get credit for your ideas, assuming you didn’t sign an “All your ideas are belong to us” agreement with your employer, you’ll not only get credit, but there’s a good chance you’ll make some money too! Again, if that doesn’t inspire you, might I suggest a career in Lifeguard Sciences?
And here’s what’s worth noting: Telling and sharing these stories will actively help create more of them in the future. So will saying “People with usable skills tend to be able to feed themselves.”
Research shows us that a key part of inspiring more young people to pursue careers in science and technology is simply sharing the stories of role models like them in these fields who have had a significant impact on our world. Again, probably true. My role model was Eric the Red, a man so contentious he got thrown out of not one, but two Viking cultures. If you’re that big of an asshat, you’re my guy. He’s been a great inspiration during my two decades or so of working with and on technology.
Stories like that of Rosalind Franklin, whose research was essential for revealing the structure of DNA. There’s Katherine Johnson, who calculated key flight trajectories during the Space Race. The ENIAC team — six young women “Computers” who were the first digital programmers in America. Or Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who first developed computer languages and a compiler to translate them into machine code. I’m more inspired by the army of male and female programmers, administrators, and technicians who have kept the wheels on the Information Revolution for the past 40 years or so while the chosen people, like you, could have “great ideas” and make oodles of money convincing other people your brain droppings are worth paying for.
Seriously, though, I can see where you’re going. For whatever reason, girls and women are kind of thin on the ground in STEM education and jobs. But we’ve been pushing ‘equality’ in girls’ education for nigh-onto 40 years, and we’re still working on this. What we need to do is encourage young people of both sexes to learn as much as they can about as many things as they can, then work toward a degree that they can enjoy and will provide gainful employment. Making ” Studies” degrees easily available and convincing students that someone will pay them because they’re bright and creative is probably part of the problem.
In other words, telling young ladies about Ada Lovelace or the other women who have excelled in science or engineering is probably only going to work on a few of your targets. Let’s try something that’s worked before: being truthful in how good a STEM degree and job can be for them.
You just might inspire the next Ada Lovelace. Or the next Carly Fiorina, or Meg Whitman, or the other women who have become CEO’s of major companies, both in and out of the STEM fields.
U.S. Chief Technology Officer
The White House