Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Philippa Fawcett, English mathematician and educationalist

Related post: What do you think of diversity?

My post from the previous year: It’s Ada Lovelace day!

Philippa Fawcett’s parents were Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett. In many ways they are more famous than their daughter Philippa. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a leader of English suffragists (the movement to grant women the vote). She had worked tirelessly, not only for the vote, but for the cause of women’s higher education in Cambridge. In 1871 she co-founded Newnham College in Cambridge, one of the earliest English university colleges for women. We take higher education for granted; however, it was not always so. The idea of women attending the University was greeted with derision when first seriously raised in the 19th century. In 1868 Cambridge’s Local Examinations Board allowed women to take exams for the first time. The first female colleges were formed in 1869 (Girton) and 1871 (Newnham). After that women were allowed into lectures, albeit at the discretion of the lecturer. By 1881, women were allowed to sit university examinations. Starting from 1921, they were awarded degrees rather than special certificates.

Henry Fawcett was a professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and Postmaster General in Gladstone’s government. (As Postmaster General, he introduced many innovations, including parcel post, postal orders, and licensing changes to permit payphones and trunk lines.)

Millicent Garrett also had a famous older sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was a pioneer of women in medicine. She attended lectures and surgical demonstrations, from which everyone sought to exclude her. Some years later she had been elected President of the East Anglian branch of that very British Medical Association which at first had debated whether women could pursue rigorous medical studies.

Growing up in such intelligent, broad-minded and forward-thinking family surely stimulated and developed Philippa’s mind. At the age of fifteen Philippa was showing such outstanding ability at mathematics that her parents employed a mathematics tutor. She also began to attend mathematics lectures both at Bedford College, the first British university to grant degrees to women, and at University College London where she studied pure and applied mathematics from 1885 to 1887. Philippa Fawcett’s outstanding results in algebra and geometry led to her being awarded a Gilchrist scholarship to study mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, the women’s College that her mother had helped to found. Read the rest of this entry »

Ada Lovelace Day 2010

I just pledged to participate in Ada Lovelace Day 2010, i.e. to publish a post on Women and Technology in my blog on March 24. You can join me and the others at

My post for this year: Philippa Fawcett

Here’s my post from the previous year: It’s Ada Lovelace day!

Related post: What do you think of diversity?

It’s Ada Lovelace Day!

It’s a special day today: Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging about women in technology. I wanted to write about Grace Hopper but then I thought there’s too much written about Granny COBOL out there already.

I’d rather write about women I know.

My mother, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and has been working full-time as a researcher, together with cooking, cleaning, mending, standing for hours in lines in grocery stores, sewing and knitting for the family of four, for as long as I remember.

My mother-in-law, who worked all her life in a Soviet-style classified IT institution and still tries to teach my kids some assembler (over the phone, from Russia).

Maya Pavlovna Zimina, who headed the summer archaeological expedition, herding myself and about 10 other unruly digging teenagers throughout our most difficult ages, from 13 to about 19 when most of us were admitted to universities and at least half of us got married. Archaeology is not exactly technology, but still, she was a great role model.

My university mates. I was in the Computer Science faculty, and, strangely enough, about 90% of the people in my year were female. It is easily explained, though: university students used to be exempt from the mandatory Army draft, but a year before I entered the University the exemption was canceled, and boys flocked to the four institutes that still granted the exemption. The University was not among them, so we got only those boys who already served in the army and those who got exempted for health reasons. About 20% of all students, in total. The few that still got to serve were plucked from our ranks within the first year, and for the next 5 years we had to study in an environment resembling a nunnery.

Elena Sergeevna Ventzel, a math professor, doctor of technology, author of widely known textbooks on probability theory, scientific papers and popular science books. She also wrote great novels under the pen-name of I.Grekova (from “Igrek”, the Russian name of the letter “Y”), full of bitter truth and of praise for the glory of life and of the woman as a creative element.

My female IT colleagues in Russia. They got used to seeing job ads starting with “A programmer wanted, male, under 35 y.o.” They got used to talking to receptionists from recruitment agencies, “Er, you know, I hold a degree with honours in computer science, and I just returned from abroad where I worked for a major IT company”, and to hearing the abrupt response, “Our client asked for a man!”, followed by hanging up. I could not deal with it. It was easier for me to immigrate to Canada and build my life and career from scratch here.

My second cousin, a P.Eng., a professor in Durham College and a mother of three.

The wife of my other second cousin, a laboratory chemist and also a mother of three.

The effervescent Sacha Chua who taught me everything I know about networking, loving one’s work and being in love with life.

… I could probably go on, but there’s only 15 minutes left to midnight. That’s all folks! Or else Ada Lovelace’s day ends before I post, and my blog turns into a pumpkin.