By Wendy Gittleson
The gender gap looked very different during the earlier parts of the 20th century. Post World War II, and into the 1960s, women made up most of the computing workforce, but not for reasons that should make our grandparents proud. As noted in The Guardian, “Computers were expensive, and using women to advertise them gave the appearance to managers that jobs involving computers are easy and can be done with a cheap labor force,” explained technology historian Marie Hicks.
Through the years, computer science and software engineering have grown immensely, and many women have been pioneers in the space. In this post, read about 7 such women coders who have made a huge impact on the field and have inspired many others to get involved.
Augusta Ada Lovelace
Born: December 10, 1815, London, United Kingdom / Died: November 27, 1852
The unofficial title of the Grand Dame of computer programming goes to a woman who had a real title. She was the Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Her main claim to fame, though, had nothing to do with her royal title, except it’s perhaps the reason she was taken seriously at all. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, and writer, lived in the early 19th century. She was best known for her work with Charles Babbage in creating the first mechanical computer, called the analytical engine, to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
Babbage asked Ada to translate an article from French to English about the analytical engine that was written by the Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss journal. Not only did Ada translate, but she also added her own notes, which ended up being longer than the article. Her notes were published in 1843 in an English science journal.
Her notes detailed how people could use codes of letters, symbols, and numbers to instruct computers to complete complex calculations. Ada is often called the first computer programmer. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense named a language after Ada, not surprisingly, called Ada.
Born: December 9, 1906, New York, NY / Died: January 1, 1992
Grace Hopper was a true pioneer. She learned math and physics at Vassar College. She then entered Yale University and received a master’s degree in mathematics. Hopper went on to teach at Vassar while simultaneously becoming one of the first women to earn her Ph.D. in mathematics. She joined the military as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War II. The Navy assigned her to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard, where her assignment was to program the Mark I computer.
Hopper continued with the reserves after the war and worked as a research fellow at Harvard where she worked with the Mark II and Mark III computers. Fun fact: She helped coin the term “computer bug” after a moth shorted out the Mark II.
In 1949, Hopper went to work in the private sector. While working for Remington Rand, she supervised programming for the UNIVAC computer. Her team developed the first computer language compiler, which is essentially a translator from words to computer code. The compiler eventually led the way to the COBOL language.
Born: June 24, 1917, London, United Kingdom / Died: September 4, 1996
Joan Clarke wasn’t as much of a code writer as a code breaker who helped defeat the Nazis. Clarke graduated with a double mathematical BA degree from Cambridge’s Newnham College in 1939. Unfortunately, at the time, women were not allowed to become full academics, so her formal education stopped there. Despite that, shortly after graduating, Clarke was recruited by Gordon Welchman to join his “Government Code and Cypher School” at Bletchley Park.
Clarke was put on a team that included Alan Turing, Tony Kendrick, and Peter Twinn. Initially, she handled the clerical work, but within days, her skills and talent became evident. Together, they broke codes communicated between the Germans and their U-boats as the Nazis hunted down Allied ships.
Born: April 9, 1921, Hampton, VA / Died: February 11, 2005
If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, you already know that women, and in particular African American women, were critical to the 1960s space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Jackson was a mathematician and an aerospace engineer. She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in math and physical science from Hampton University (then Hampton College) in 1942. After graduation, she taught mathematics for a segregated black school in Maryland. She went on to largely clerical jobs until 1951 when she was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which in 1958, became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
She began her career at the space agency in the segregated West Area Computing Section at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, which was her hometown. It was there she earned the reputation as a “human computer.” In 1953, Jackson went to work with Kazimierz Czarnecki to conduct experiments with high-speed wind tunnels. Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to become an engineer, but since she was black, she had to receive special permission. At the time, schools were segregated. Jackson was part of the team that was featured in Hidden Figures.
Even after achieving the honor of being the first black female engineer at NASA, she was denied management-level promotions. In 1979, she decided to take a demotion and run the women’s program at NASA, where she focused on encouraging women in the sciences. While Jackson became less focused on computers as her career developed at NASA, it is fair to say that without her, there would be even fewer women in computer sciences today.
Born: April 23, 1933, Birmingham, AL / Died: June 25, 2011
Annie Easley was another coding pioneer who got her start during the space age. Easley fell in love with computers before ever even seeing one. In 1955, she read a newspaper story about twin sisters who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The next day, she put in her application with the space agency and began working there within two weeks.
Easley worked as a mathematician and computer programmer before even receiving a college degree. In the 1970s, he went on to graduate with a BS in computer science from Cleveland State University. She also took advantage of courses offered by NASA. When she started, Easley was one of just four African-Americans working in the Plum Brook Reactor Facility. She said in an interview that she didn’t consider herself a pioneer. “I just have my own attitude. I’m out here to get the job done, and I knew I had the ability to do it, and that’s where my focus was.” Even in the face of discrimination, she persevered. “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.”
She was originally put to work as a “human computer,” who had to conduct complex calculations by hand. Eventually, NASA began using computers, and Easley adapted without a problem. She learned to code using Fortran and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) language.
Easley went on to become an equal employment opportunity counselor, where she helped guide policy toward issues of race, age, and gender in hiring and in the workplace.
Jean E. Sammet
Born: March 23, 1928, New York, NY / Died: May 20, 2017
In 1961, more than a century after the publication of Ada’s first computer language, a mathematician and computer scientist named Jean E. Sammet wrote the first widely used computer program for symbolic manipulation of mathematical formulas, called FORMAC.
Sammet became interested in computers after working for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, where she used punch card accounting machines in her training as an actuary. She found them fascinating enough that she enrolled at Columbia University in their Ph.D. program in mathematics.
After graduating, Sammet went to work for Sperry Gyroscope. According to Mount Holyoke College, “In 1956, Jean E. Sammet ’48 was working for Sperry Gyroscope, analyzing torpedo trajectories from submarines. One day her boss’s boss came over and asked if she knew about the new computer the company was building.
“I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything more,'” Sammet said, relating the story during a talk at Mount Holyoke College in 2016. “And he said, ‘Do you want to be our programmer?’ And I said, ‘What’s a programmer?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I know we need one.'”
Sammet wanted to pursue more direct work with computers, so she accepted a position with Sylvania, after scanning the classifieds for men’s jobs. In 1959, Sammet and five other programmers designed the COBOL computer language, which is still used today.
Sammet went to work for IBM in 1961, where she directed the development of FORMAC, which is used for symbolic mathematics. Just four years later, Sammet became the programming language technology manager for IBM and led the development of the Ada programming language.
Born: August 4, 1932, Peru, NY
One of the most relatable stories about women in coding comes from Frances Allen, who is best known for her groundbreaking work in optimizing compilers. Like many career women in the mid-20th century, she went to school for teaching at the New York State College for Teachers (which eventually became part of the State University of New York at Albany). She graduated with a bachelor’s in science degree in math and went on to become a teacher. Two years after graduating, she pursued her master of science degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan.
Like many today, Allen found herself buried under student loan debt. That’s when she began working for the Thomas J. Watson Research Center at IBM and taught Fortran to employees. While Allen planned to leave IBM once she paid her debt, she retired after working for the company for 45 years.
Allen’s many awards and accolades include the IEEE Computer Society Charles Babbage Award and the Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing. She was the first woman to win the Turing Award and she was the first woman to earn an IBM fellowship. A Ph.D. IBM Fellowship Award was created in her honor. She is a Fellow of the IEEE and the Association for Computing Machinery. Allen retired from IBM in 2002.
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