As Women’s History Month wraps up, we should all remember an especially significant figure in tech: Ada Lovelace. In 1843, Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer by writing an algorithm intended to be understood by a machine, which became what is arguably the world’s first open source code.

An illustration of Ada Lovelace. CC-BY-SA

An illustration of Ada Lovelace. Public domain

While women are involved in tech and occasionally head prominent companies, 170 years after Lovelace’s achievements, we are still discussing the ways women are under-represented in the industry. Despite the attention that Lovelace’s legacy brought to the role of women in technology in 2009, when the first Ada Lovelace Day was declared, she would probably not be happy with the status quo of women in tech today.

Inspired by Lovelace and concerned by the scarcity of women in open source and open culture, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora co-founded The Ada Initiative (TAI) in 2011. Gardiner and Aurora, both advocates and developers with a long history in open source, started the organization not only to honor Lovelace’s memory, but also to elevate the role of women in open source and open culture and to address issues that women in the open source community face.

Aurora said she realized the need for a formal organization after a mutual friend of hers and Gardiner’s was sexually assaulted, for the third time in a year, at an open source conference. After writing about her experiences on her blog, Aurora’s friend was the product of blame and derision, rather than sympathy. Aurora felt the only solution to combat this type of behavior was to substantially increase the involvement of women in tech and open source, one of TAI’s primary objectives.

“I have also been assaulted at open source conferences, as well as many of my friends,” said Aurora. “It hit me then: this problem isn’t going away, it’s just getting worse. I decided to try forming a non-profit to pay people to work full-time on the problem, since volunteer work clearly wasn’t enough to fight the tide.”

Aurora quit her job as a Linux file systems developer and threw herself headlong into TAI, and Gardiner was her first pick as co-founder. The two had been friends for more than 10 years. Gardiner, who had already been a strong advocate for women in open source, was the perfect partner.

Gardiner had previously founded AussieChix, the first and largest open source organization for women in Australia, which she later helped expand to all of Oceania as Oceania Women of Open Technology. Gardiner and Aurora recruited prominent members of the open source and open culture community to serve on TAI’s advisory board, including Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation; Karen Sandler, Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation; and John Ferlito, President of Linux Australia.

Since its founding a little more than a year ago, TAI has developed and led initiatives and programs that have solidified the organization’s role as a leader of the movement for women in open source and open culture. One of these initiatives is the “Ada’s Allies” workshops, where participants learn how to be good allies for women in open source.

“Many of us want to speak up when we see something sexist or offensive happening, but we don’t know what to say,” says Aurora. The workshop helps Allies learn how to respond to scenarios through role-playing and discussion.

TAI has also been a leader in working with open source tech and culture conferences to adopt policies to ensure a healthy and safe environment for all attendees, such as the Wikimedia Foundation’s “Friendly space policy.”

“What we’ve found over and over again is that people who behave in embarrassing and harassing ways believe that their behavior is acceptable,” says Aurora. “Ninety-percent of the battle is simply telling them how you expect them to behave in clear, specific terms.”

With Gardiner’s recent selection by the Wikimania 2012 Program Committee as the keynote speaker at Wikimania 2012 this July, she will certainly bring more attention to the issue. Coupled with the upcoming WikiWomenCamp 2012 and AdaCamp DC, 2012 will be the year to both honor the historical role of women in the tech and computer industries, and to promote their greater involvement in the future.

Nicholas Michael Bashour, President of Wikimedia District of Columbia and General Manager for Wikimania 2012
Sarah Stierch, Community Fellow at the Wikimedia Foundation, Ada Initiative Advisory Board Member