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Cover image for The history of women in tech: changing the master narrative

The history of women in tech: changing the master narrative

amandaeducative profile image Amanda Fawcett ・9 min read

March is Women’s History Month. Inspired by Dev.to’s Nevertheless, She Coded project, I wanted to turn our attention to some of the women throughout history who have transformed the tech field. These are the women that we as developers are ALL indebted to.

Many of our histories are written (even sometimes intentionally) to exclude women, which generates a master narrative that women are not at the forefront of innovation. This is especially true for the history of science and mathematics. We have come to the false assumption that women in tech are the exception to the rule. This subtly characterizes the accomplishments of women as the subsection of success.

FACT: women have always been at the forefront of technology and science. The efforts, writings, and innovations of women are interwoven with the history of tech and computer science. "Women in tech" is not the extra class or bonus chapter tacked on at the end. We are the history.

Today, let’s learn about 15 notable women who are the history of tech and computer science.

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Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

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Lovelace was an English mathemetician, writer, and researcher, who some call the prophet of the computer age. Highly educated in mathematics at the University of London, Lovelace worked alongside Charles Babbage to pioneer an early version of a computer, called the Analytical Engine. She took detailed notes on the machine and introduced many new concepts. She should, therefore, be recognized as the first computer programmer.

One of the major concepts she introduced was the idea that codes could handle letters and symbols rather than just numbers. She also was the first to theorize the concept of loops, writing that computers could be automated to repeat instructions. Her contributions to programming were not discovered until 1950.

Fact: The U.S. Department of Defence named the programming language “Ada” after Lovelace to honor her contributions. She is also the daughter of romantic poet Lord Byron.

Quote: “The more I study, the more insatiable do I feel my genius for it to be.”


Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

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Hopper pioneered computer programming and worked on the first commercial computer in the US. She invented one of the first linkers and developed FLOW-MATIC, the first data processing language to mimic the English language. Her work on FLOW-MATIC, which popularized the idea of machine-independent languages, was eventually developed into COBOL, the standard operating language of the Navy. Beyond the immense accomplishments, this senior mathematician (and Navy admiral) is best known for coining the term “computer bug”.

Fact: Hopper earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, a very rare accomplishment at the time, even for men. In fact, under 1,300 PhDs were awarded over the 72-year period.

Quote: “If it's a good idea, go ahead and do it. It's much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”


Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (1918-2020)

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Johnson is a mathematician and the first African-American woman to be employed with NASA. Her calculations of orbital mechanics led to the success of the first human-manned spaceflights and the moon landing in 1969. She led a 35-year career with NASA and helped pioneer the use of launch windows and computers for space exploration calculations. The 2016 film Hidden Figures documents her career.

Fact: Former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidental Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Quote: “We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”


Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913-1985)

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One of the first people to earn a doctorate degree in computer science, Sister Mary was a pioneer for the accessibility of early programming languages. She developed the language BASIC, which enabled anyone, not just mathematicians, to learn computer programming. BASIC was the first language to translate computer binary into something more useable and straightforward. She continued her work at numerous universities and advocated for free education, particularly for women in computing.

Fact: Sister Mary established the computing department at Clarke College in Iowa.

Quote: “We’re having an information explosion, among others, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.”


Williamina Fleming (1857-1911)

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Fleming is best known for her work in astronomy, having developed a common designation system and catalog for over 10,000 stars and phenomena. Her work as an astronomer led to the discovery of the Horsehead Nebula. She began her career as a housekeeper/maid at the Harvard College Observatory and was paid to be a ‘computer’ and meticulously inspect photographic plates. As she gained more recognition, she was put in charge of hiring other computers. She worked actively to hire other women. It was in this time that she developed the Pickering-Fleming system to classify stars by the strength of their spectra.

Fact: Fleming was made the first female curator of the Harvard College Observatory in 1898. She was also appointed as an honorary member of London’s Royal Astronomical Society.


Edith Clarke (1883-1959)

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Clarke was the first woman to be employed professionally as an electrical engineer and the first female professor of electrical engineering. Her work at MIT and GE led to the first transcontinental telephone line between New York and California. Clarke focused on electric power transmission lines, and she was essential contemporary theories of currents. Some say that her publications are the earliest developments in data analysis. She also devised the Clark Calculator for solving hyperbolic functions, and this tool is the first to support “power grid” or “smart grid” technology.

Fact: Clarke is well known for her textbooks and papers, which are still used in education. Her papers won Best Regional Paper Prize in 1932 and Best National Paper Prize in 1941.


WWII ENIAC Programmers (1940s)

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The first modern computer programmers were a group of six women. During WWII, the government encouraged women to enter the workforce, and many swarmed as programmers and mathematicians. The computer ENIAC was operated by a group of 6 women, whose work on the computer was vital to US military efforts. Initially, these women were not given security clearance and had to code the machine using paper diagrams. They learned the device with no training and had to study manuals with no guidance.

Unsurprisingly, it was only the male engineers who received recognition for ENIAC. But the modern profession of programming is owed to these underpaid, undervalued women. Their names are Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas, and Kay McNulty.


Annie Easley (1933-2011)

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This mathematical and computer engineer led a successful career in NASA as one of the only female African-American employees at that time. Trained in computation and FORTRAN, Easley developed the earliest hybrid battery, and she was able to extend the life use of storage batteries. Her work on shuttle launches led to vital data on the ozone and the NASA nuclear reactor. Most notable was her work on the Centaur rocket. In fact, Surveyor 1 was powered by Easley’s rocket. Easley experienced detrimental discrimination at NASA, but she continued to work for over 30 years, developing and implementing computer code to develop alternative systems and energy problems, innovations that are now essential to human society.

Fact: Easley lived through the American Jim Crow laws and used her education to help other African Americans prepare for the tests that marginalized individuals were required to pass in order to vote.

Quote: “You keep going because there are people who have authority, and I think sometimes they abuse it."


Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

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Bingen is a lesser-known figure who is considered the founder of German scientific natural history. She is, in fact, the first in many fields, and her contributions to humanity are endless: she was a medieval polymath, physicist, inventor, educator, researcher of medicine, composer, and writer. Her scientific achievements ranged from progressive discussions on female sexuality, discoveries in geology and the physical properties of metals, cures for diseases, botany, and astrology. She even invented her own alphabet, and her works are often considered the earliest versions of health advice books.

Fact: Bingen was the magistra of a nunnery and experienced intense spiritual visions throughout her life, which she documented extensively. In her life, she composed over 80 pieces of music and plays.

Quote: “With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.”


Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007)

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This British computer scientist is responsible for the idea of term weighting for information retrieval, database queries, and inverse document frequency (the basic concepts behind most search engines). Her work in the field of computer science combined statistics, linguistics, and natural language processing with computation, a very important step for modern-day programming. She published extensively on topics relating to computer science and advocated for women in STEM, arguing that they were vital to the success and future of computer science overall.

Fact: The Karen Spärck Jones Award was created in 2008 to commemorate her achievements and honor other innovators.

Quote: "I think it's very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men."


Carol Shaw (1955-now)

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Anyone who knows of the Atari 2600 should know this name. Shaw was the first female video game designer and programmer, best known for vertically scrolling shooter River Raid, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, Scramble (Activision) and Video Checkers. She also wrote the Ataria BASIC Reference Manual. After working at Atari, Shaw moved onto Activision as an assembly language programmer. Despite being one of the only women in her field, Shaw saw great success and has been described as a scholar in the field of Computer Science.

Fact: Her game 3-D Tic Tac Toe (1978) took her six months to create.

Quote: “When I was in junior high and high school, I was good at math. I entered a bunch of math contests and won awards. Of course, people would say, “Gee, you’re good at math — for a girl.” That was kind of annoying. Why shouldn’t girls be good at math?”


Radia Perlman (1951-now)

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This American computer programmer and network engineer invented the spanning-tree protocol, which is now fundamental to networking bridging. She also contributed to network design and link-state routing protocols, such as the TRILL protocol. Perlman has authored many books and textbooks on networking and has served as a keynote speaker at countless events around the world.

Fact: Perlman holds over 100 issued patents for her inventions

Quote: "The world would be a better place if more engineers, like me, hated technology. The stuff I design, if I'm successful, nobody will ever notice. Things will just work and will be self-managing."


Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924-now)

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Granville is the second African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics (the first is Euphemia Haynes in 1943). Granville was interested in the field of functional analysis and was employed as a computer programmer with IBM and NASA. She contributed to various projects on the Apollo program, such as trajectory computation and digital computer techniques. She was also employed as a professor of mathematics in Texas and earned two honorary degrees. Throughout her life, she advocated for math enrichment programs and the education of women in tech. She wrote the Theory and Application of Mathematics for Teachers, which was used as an instrumental textbook in over fifty colleges across the United States.

Quote: When asked about her major accomplishments - “First of all, showing that women can do mathematics. Being an African American woman, letting people know that we have brains too.”


Adele Goldberg (1945-now)

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This computer scientist developed the programming language Smalltalk-80 and contributed greatly to object-oriented programming. Smalltalk was used to prototype the icons, menus, windows, and icons (WIMP) for Xerox Parc, the foundation of most modern interfaces and graphics. Many of her innovations and ideas were used by Apple to develop the basis for the Macintosh desktop environment. She continues to serve as an educator in the field of computer science and was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 2010. Think of her every time you open a new window on your laptop!

Fact: Goldberg initially refused to offer Steve Jobs a Smalltalk demonstration, but the Xerox managers overruled her decision.


Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)

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This Austrian-American inventor is known best for her work as a television and film actress in the 1940s. With no formal training, Lamarr was a self-taught inventor who improved traffic stoplights and even developed a dissolving tablet that created a carbonated drink. The most notable of her inventions, however, was a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. Lamarr worked alongside composer George Antheil to develop this frequency-hopping system that prevented torpedo jamming. The technology behind would later be used in Bluetooth technologies and was adapted by the U.S. Navy in the 60s.

Fact: Lamarr was not recognized for her work until much later in her life and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014.

Quote: "Analysis gave me great freedom of emotions and fantastic confidence. I felt I had served my time as a puppet.”

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Amanda Fawcett

@amandaeducative

Content Marketing Manager for Educative, Inc. (she/her) Learning web dev from scratch!

Discussion

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Very interesting read. I knew about some of these ladies but not all. Thank you.

 

Probably one of the biggest obstacles for the integration of more women, and girls, in the STEM subjects. Those women remind us that no, women are not « not interested or attracted by technical or scientifics subjects » I actually worked with friends in high school on the subject of women mathematicians. We had been incensed by some of our teachers, and the way they were treating us (girls in scientific courses) as if my friends were not the best students in physics and maths.

 

I'm a big fan of Mary Poppendieck her book about lean software development is awesome and she has some presentations on YouTube that is must watch for every software developer

 

Great piece! This makes me want a poster of these amazing women for my office immediately.

 

This is amazing! ❤️ I'm shocked about how although I've researched the topic before, there are still so many women I hadn't heard of on this list.