Women in Tech: Pioneers Past and Present
Published: Dec 13, 2017 By Seema Sharma
In this article we recount the crucial, often overlooked role, women have played in the development of technology. We look at contributions throughout history, including present-day trailblazers, who are continuing to push the boundaries in the tech industry.
Many recent studies that focus on women in the technology sector make for depressing reading, from the perspective of closing the gender gap. Statistics from the US Bureau of Labor in 2016 showed women hold only 25% of tech-related jobs . Another US study concluded that there was a significant attrition of women in tech fields over time, compared to non-STEM roles . The findings showed that after 12 years, approximately 50% of women had left their jobs in STEM fields—mostly in computing or engineering. Upon closer inspection, the reduction was not attributable to women leaving for family commitments, but other reasons including workplace conditions, promotion prospects and a lack of creative roles.
In the findings of a recent UK study, conducted by PwC (Women in Technology 2017), only 3% of girls embarking on career choices would chose the technology sector. Reasons stated for this were multifarious, including a lack of role models and inherent bias in those providing career advice — only 16% of females had a career in tech suggested to them, versus 33% of their fellow male students . Additionally, the somewhat lean pipeline of UK female undergraduates in STEM (16%), suggests this imbalance will continue into the future.
At a global level, in a recent 2017 survey conducted by Stack Overflow, (an online community of over 4 million developers to share programming knowledge), 89% of 64K software developers identified as male . There are also several indicators showing gender bias in programming. For example, recent research examined the acceptance rate of code at an open source community (GitHub) . Surprisingly, results showed that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s. That is, unless the contributor’s gender is identifiable as female, then men’s acceptance rates are higher. The results suggest that although women may be more competent at coding overall, bias against them exists.
Despite encountering considerable obstacles and facing bias, many talented women have contributed to key progress in tech, and continue to help defy the trends. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the leading female figures in technology throughout the course of history. Whilst we can’t hope to cover a comprehensive list of all of the worthy pioneers — we will focus on some key influencers, including an overview of the present day.
Women in Tech: Pioneers in history
Ada Lovelace: Computer Programmer
Regularly recognised as the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was one of the early pioneers in the field. Lovelace, born in London, UK in 1815, was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron. However, she never knew her father and was steered away from the arts and influenced by her mother, who was astutely mathematically minded.
At the age of 26, Lovelace worked in conjunction with her friend and mentor Charles Babbage, on what was known at the time as ‘The Analytical Engine.’ Her key role was to translate the notes of an Italian Engineer, Luigi Meneabrea, from French to English, correcting many errors along the way. Her final translation was over three times the length of the original, with several early ‘computer programs,’ as well as remarkable observations on the potential uses of the machine. Although Babbage and his co-workers had some preliminary programs for his engine, he recognised that Lovelace’s were much more comprehensive, and the first to be published. At the time Charles Babbage recognised her striking mathematical powers, and her unique capability for programming his calculating machine.
“The Analytical Engine has no pretentions whatever to originate anything,” Lovelace stated in her notes. “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with.”
"The Analytical Engine has no pretentions whatever to originate anything,” Lovelace stated in her notes. “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform."
These observations have helped dub her a prophet of the computer age. Tragically, Ada earned little public recognition during her lifetime, and died from cancer at the age of 36, in 1852.
Joan Clarke: Mathematician and Codebreaker
Lovelace’s notes on ‘The Analytical Engine’ became one of the critical documents to inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers in the 1940’s. Turing, a noted computer scientist, mathematician and cryptanalyst is considered by some to be the founder of modern computing and AI. His work on cracking the code used by ‘The Enigma Machine’ by the Nazis to transmit encoded messages during the second world war, was critical to the victory of the Allied Forces. Winston Churchill, the UK Prime Minister at the time, acknowledged that it was the single biggest contribution to Allied victory.
One of the notable contributors that worked alongside Turing was Joan Clarke, an astute mathematician. Clarke had earned a scholarship to attend Cambridge University in 1936, and went on to gain a double first in Mathematics. However, she was never formally awarded the qualification, as only men were allowed to graduate from the university until 1948. One of her academic tutors from Cambridge, Gordon Welchman, had recognised her astute abilities.
When Welchman was recruited to set up decoding activities in secret at Bletchley Park, he also asked Joan to join what was referred to as the ‘Government Code and Cypher School’. Joan, first recruited on clerical duties in a team known informally as ‘the girls,’ went on to be the only female in a team of eight that finally cracked ‘The Enigma Code.’ She was recognised by the rest of the team as one of the best code-breakers, using a method called Banburismus, developed by Turing — to whom Clarke was briefly engaged. Clarke thought up her own method to speed up the technique. She was subsequently informed that she was using Dillysimus — a method invented by Dillwin Knox, a cryptographic expert of World War One.
Joan Clarke was paid much less than her fellow code-breakers but was promoted to being a ‘linguist,’ a role that provided her with better pay than clerical duties, despite the fact she spoke no foreign languages. She was recognised for her work with a number of awards, including Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1947 for her codebreaking expertise. She continued working for the government and went on to research coinage, for which she received the Sanford Saltus Medal. Clarke died in 1996 in Oxford in the UK, aged 79.
Admiral Grace Hopper: Computer Scientist and Programmer
Grace Hopper was a Mathematician, Computer Scientist and Navy Admiral born in New York in 1906. Grace had a natural ability for maths, and graduated from Vassar College in Maths and Physics in 1928. She went on to teach at Yale and earned a PhD., in mathematics in 1934, an outstanding achievement for women at the time. She continued teaching at Yale for a number of years.
When a voluntary arm of the US Navy Reserve — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), was created during World War II in 1942, Hopper took leave of absence from her academic post to join. She was promptly deployed to a team assigned to program a Mark I Navy computer — a large machine weighing over 10,000 lbs/4500 kg developed with IBM at Harvard University. She didn't return to her academic post and continued in her role at Harvard for the rest of the decade.
In the 1950s, Grace moved to a role as Senior Mathematician at a company called Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. She was instrumental in developing a new computer called UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I), which became one of the first commercial computers available in the US. During this time, she developed the world’s first ever compiler, a program that transformed source code written in one high-level computer language into another one, (often machine code). Compilers were seen as revolutionary at a time when computers were mainly used for arithmetic computations. She was quoted as saying “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.”
Eventually her work there was recognized and she was named the company’s first director of automatic programming two years later. She subsequently developed a number of compiler-based programming languages, including FLOW-MATIC. The latter was the first English-based data processing language and lead to her development of COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language). COBOL is still in use today, with 43% of banks built on the code, which also underpins 80% of all ATM transactions in the US . It is largely due to Grace Hopper’s influence on helping develop these early programs that “if/thens” are used instead of 0’s and 1’s in coding today.
Hopper returned to working with the Navy in 1967, in the role of Director of the Navy Programming Languages Group. She went on to be promoted to ‘Captain’ in 1973, working through her retirement and then ‘Rear Admiral’ in 1983 by a US government special appointment. She retired from the Navy in 1986 at the age of 79, but continued to work until her death, six years later.
"Grace received many accolades during her lifetime, including having a naval warship named after her. She was also once fittingly dubbed the ‘The Queen of Software’..."
Grace received many accolades during her lifetime, including having a naval warship named after her. She was also once fittingly dubbed the ‘The Queen of Software’ in an interview by the popular American show host, David Letterman.
Women in Tech: Present Day
Whilst there is a fair way to go before we observe gender parity in the tech field, it is paramount not to lose sight of the considerable progress made to date. Especially, since the likes of historical pioneers like Ada Lovelace were starting to push boundaries. For example, some of today’s most well-known, and innovative tech companies were founded by outstanding women, including Cisco (Sandra Lerner), SlideShare (Rashmi Sinha), CEEK VR (Mary Spio) and Flickr (Caterina Fake).
Many other women hold key positions in global tech companies. Sheryl Sandberg is the second in command at Facebook, in the role of Chief Operation Officer (COO). She joined Facebook in 2008 and was the first female appointed to their board of directors in 2012. She was no stranger to the tech world and had previously had a successful career path at Google. Sheryl is a vocal supporter of women in tech and published a book in 2013, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," to help address the issues faced by the female workforce. In the book, she takes a look at the challenges women in leadership face, ranging from subtle biases to overt discrimination. She goes further to state that women may be prone to internalising and accepting these biases, writing “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
Another example of female leadership in tech is Ginni Rometty, currently President and CEO of IBM. The company is an established multi-national leader in computing that has origins that date back to over a century ago. Rometty graduated in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from North Western University, US in 1979. She originally joined IBM as a Systems Engineer in 1981, before going on to serve a number of senior roles. These included her role as Vice-President, during which time she oversaw the acquisition and integration of PwC Consulting. She has remained with the company for decades, and has led its refocus into a data and cloud platform provider in the last two years.
"Another example of female leadership in tech is Ginni Rometty, currently President and CEO of IBM."
In October 2016, during a keynote speech at a conference celebrating Grace Hopper’s contribution to the computing world, Gini advised women to refuse to let others define them. She also encouraged women to be risk-takers at work stating, “I learned that growth and comfort never coexist…… Ask yourself when you learn the most. I guarantee it's when you felt at risk.”
Other present day key female pioneers in tech include Radia Perlman, who was instrumental in the development of the world wide web. Perlman graduated in Mathematics and went on to gain a Ph.D. in Computer Science from MIT in 1988. Her thesis researched the problem of routing in the presence of malicious network failures. Between her time completing her degree and PhD., Radio worked for Bolt, Beranek and Newman Technologies, and then Digital Equipment Corporation. It was at the latter company that Perlman developed protocols for routing network traffic, known as ‘Spanning-Tree Protocols’. This groundbreaking work enabled a critical feature of scalability of network traffic on the internet, making its existence possible.
Perlman holds over 70 software patents and has received many accolades including a USENIX Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), and an addition to the National Inventors Hall of Fame award in 2016. She is sometimes referred to as the ‘Mother of the Internet’, a title that she publicly rebukes, as she feels its invention is not attributable to one person.
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- US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016 https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2017/women-in-architecture-and-engineering-occupations-in-2016.htm?view_full
- WOMEN IN TECH: THE FACTS 2016. National Centre for Women and Information technology; Ashcraft, McLain, and Eger. https://www.ncwit.org/sites/default/files/resources/womenintech_facts_fullreport_05132016.pdf
- Women in Tech: Time to close the gender gap. PwC https://www.pwc.co.uk/who-we-are/women-in-technology/time-to-close-the-gender-gap.html
- Stack Overflow Developers Survey https://insights.stackoverflow.com/survey/2017
- Terrell J, Kofink A, Middleton J, Rainear C, Murphy-Hill E, Parnin C, Stallings J. (2017) Gender differences and bias in open source: pull request acceptance of women versus men. PeerJ Computer Science 3:e111 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj-cs.111
- Thomson Reuters: Statistics on the use of COBOL in the US finance industry http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-BANKS-COBOL/010040KH18J/index.html
- Fortune 500: Best Workplaces for Diversity 2017 http://fortune.com/best-workplaces-for-diversity/
- Gender Bias: Perspectives from an Indian researcher abroad, excelling in STEM This will open in a new window
- Gender Bias and the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon: Interview with Professor Michelle Ryan This will open in a new window
- Gender bias in the workplace: Practical steps to take for change This will open in a new window