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Women in AI’s history

The first computer programmer in history is… Ada Lovelace King (1815-1852)

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born Ada Byron, is an English mathematician and writer. The story of this woman, who lived only for 36 years, is emblematic for our blog!

Ada Lovelace King is the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron… but not everyone knows that her mother, Lady Byron is also a mathematician. She is their only daughter… and do we have to say that at her birth, her father, who dreamed of a “glorious boy”, was very disappointed to have a girl?  He will separate from his wife one month after Ada’s birth and will leave England forever!  Although the English law at the time granted the full children custody to the father in case of separation, Lord Byron made no attempt to claim his parental rights.  Ada had no relationship with her father. He died when she was eight years old. 

Ada, 4

Ada, 17

Ada, 25

From a very young age, Ada received private trainings in mathematics and science from the greatest, including Mary Somerville, a famous 19th century researcher and scientific author. And very early on, Ada felt like an explorer. At twelve, she decided to fly ! She adopted a true scientific approach to achieve this. She began by building wings and methodically studying the different materials: paper, oil, threads and feathers. She also examined the anatomy of birds to determine the right proportion between the wings and the body. She wrote a book, Flyology, illustrating some of her discoveries with drawings. She then conceived the instrumentation and equipment and chose, for example, a compass, to “cut across the country by the most direct route”. Her last step consisted of integrating steam to “the art of flying”.

At 18, she started a working relationship and friendship that lasted a lifetime with the British mathematician Charles Babbage, known as “the father of computers.” Their friendship is immortalized as they are together since 2015 on all British passports.

Babbage is considered as the father of computer. He invented the analytical engine, a versatile mechanical computer incorporating an arithmetic logic unit, a control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and an integrated memory!

Ada is the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure computation, and to publish the first algorithm intended to be executed by such a machine. Indeed, at the age of 27, Ada translates an Italian article (by Luigi Menabrea) on the analytical engine and adds what she modestly calls “Notes”, which are elaborated comments, 3 times longer than the article itself, containing this algorithm designed to be executed by the machine and which the history of computer science retains as the first program.  It is an algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers.

Lovelace diagram of “note G”, the first published computer algorithm

To finish, did you know that “Ada Lovelace Day” is an annual event celebrated on the second Tuesday of October (since 2009)? The goal of this day is to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to create new role models for girls and women in these fields.

Apart from Ada Lovelace who really impacted the computer science sector and thus artificial intelligence in the 19th century, other women of the 21st century continue to stand out. Françoise BOUGHER is one of them.

Françoise BROUGHER : « For me, if someone is sexist, it’s not my problem, it’s theirs »

She is one of the few women to have risen to the top of Silicon Valley! For 25 years, Françoise Brougher has made a career in tech and digital: with her successes in the upper echelons of Google and Square, Françoise Brougher thought she had broken the glass ceiling in a long misogynistic Silicon Valley…but her next experience, as number 2 at Pinterest, would teach her that the fight is not yet over: it’s up to all of us to learn from it!

Let’s look back at her incredible rise. Born in Marseille, daughter of a journalist and a mathematics teacher, Françoise was interested in science fiction, gadgets (the first Sony walkman, which will make people over 40 nostalgic!), math and physics. Her parents were very open: “From the beginning, they told me to do what I wanted”. Françoise therefore naturally studied engineering and graduated from ICAM in Lille in 1989. She later completed her education with a MBA at the prestigious Harvard University. She will stay in Silicon Valley… to repay the loan for her MBA. She then tried her hand at start-ups, before joining Charles Schwab, a stock brokerage firm, in the early days of online trading. From 2005, she works alongside the founders of a “small company” of 2000 people : Google. After 2013, she becomes an executive at Square in a company managed by a majority of women.

In 2018, her career continues brilliantly, and she takes the position of COO at Pinterest. She realizes that she was put there because it looked good to have a woman in that position…with less decision-making power than a lambda product manager.“When we started working on the IPO, I was the most experienced on the subject, I had done all the processes before for Square, I knew the investors and bankers well… And when it was time to leave for the roadshow, they told me to stay home. I was the revenue person in the company and that’s what the bankers are interested in. It was a shock to me, I didn’t understand.”

She tries to wake up the company in transparency and confrontation. Unfortunately, it does not work. She is marginalized, and she is no longer invited to the boards of directors. She is told she talks too much and is too aggressive. In April, Françoise Brougher was dismissed after a phone call from the boss that lasted just 10 minutes:“you have bad cross-functional relations”.

Sexism in tech companies is a well-known issue today…but Françoise Brougher thought she had definitively broken through this famous glass ceiling. “In these environments, you quickly understand that as a woman you are different, but I am irrationally optimistic, so I refuse to see what I don’t like. For me, if someone is sexist, it’s not my problem, it’s theirs. I don’t let people stop me from being successful.”For a long time, this mentality allowed her to not question herself, and to successfully navigate these environments.

The glass ceiling came down on her head at Pinterest… But California laws protect against discrimination. Françoise is brave and isn’t afraid that the splinters of the case will tarnish the rest of her career. So, she decides to get a lawyer, and to tell her misadventures on Medium. She is joined by two other mistreated Afro-American executives at Pinterest. A group of shareholders then files a complaint against the CEO of Pinterest…Last December, she obtains the largest public individual settlement for gender discrimination in the history of the United States. “Since that day, not a week goes by without a woman contacting me for advice. It has reinforced my belief in the rightness of my approach. More and more women who are victims of discrimination are speaking out, and each word helps the next one a little bit more, even if we are still far from counting.”

Her victory is a victory for all women victims of discrimination, and her courage is also a call not to let down the guard!

Written by Emmanuelle P.


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