October 15th marks Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. As I read through posts commemorating the day, it got me reflecting on my own experience. It’s not just that I admire Ada Lovelace and the women that followed after her. It’s that I quite literally wouldn’t be here without them.
My mom, Bridget Baird, went to an all-women’s college in the late 1960s where she considered majoring in philosophy before switching to mathematics. After getting her PhD, she took a job in the early 1980s at Connecticut College in the math department. She got interested in computer programming, and eventually moved into a joint appointment in the computer science department. Over a three-decade career, her curiosity led her (and her thousands of students along with her) to the intersection of computer science with disciplines as far afield as archaeology, music, dance, and art. Along the way she faced the kinds of systemic discrimination that plagued the entire cohort of women entering male-dominated fields in the 1970s and 1980s. In other ways, she was lucky to have grown up during a time of transition when women began carving out new possibilities to enter those fields. She has spent her entire career mentoring female students and colleagues while vocally pushing her institution and discipline to take a more active role in tackling gender equity.
Although I missed the boat entirely on my mom’s math gene, she did manage to impress on me her fascination with applying computers to solve problems. Five years ago I wrote personal statements for history graduate programs structured around my interest in using technology to study the past. My mom since helped me learn how to program and we eventually ended up collaborating on a couple of projects. I’m one of the few graduate students I know who can call their mother to ask her about Thanksgiving plans and Python modules. I am, in ways I can’t even begin to articulate, a direct beneficiary of the legacy left by women like Ada Lovelace.
Which is why I oscillate between hope and discouragement when I look at around my own disciplinary homes of history and the digital humanities. On the one hand, women have made significant inroads in both fields. There are roughly equal numbers of male and female graduate students in my department. Many of the thought leaders and rising stars of the digital humanities are women, with opportunities and support growing all the time. The kinds of daily overt sexism faced by my mom and other women in her generation have, for the most part, gone the way of transistor radios. But that’s the problem: what remains is an insidious, covert sexism that is much, much harder to uproot.
And it’s everywhere. The proportion of female faculty in history departments is far lower than other fields, with the proportion of new female PhDs hovering stubbornly around 40%. Male historians continue to enjoy more time to spend on the kind of research that will get them tenure (as opposed to female historians spending more time on teaching and instruction), while men and women express completely different perceptions of gender equity at their institutions. The digital humanities have unfortunately inherited many of the gender problems endemic to computer science. These problems rear their ugly head everywhere, from the assumptions of a privileged male coding culture to the language of “hard” STEM fields vs. “soft” humanities. When I look around the room at digital humanities meetings and conferences I see the faces of a whole lot of people who look a whole lot like me. At a digital humanities conference on women’s history, though, I found that those same faces all but disappeared. I think about my mom every time I watch a female student grow increasingly silent during a discussion section or read the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners. We can do better.