The long-forgotten women of computer science are re-emerging

As Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) takes place, we can’t help but be reminded that the big names in tech are almost all male. What’s more, at big tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, men make up between 80 – 85% of engineering employees. So, what’s the deal? Are women just simply not interested in computer sciences?

In Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators, How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution, he pays particularly close attention to the women who have been forgotten over the years, but who made essential contributions to computer science. Among the many women who have been excluded from computing history is Ada Lovelace, who, ironically, is often referred to as the world’s first computer programmer. As he stated in an interview with the New York Times

If it wasn’t for Ada Lovelace, there’s a chance that none of this would even exist.

Another strong example of this systematic exclusion of women from history is the story of Eniac, the first electronic general-purpose computer. Bot Jean Bartik and Betty Holberton played prominent roles in programming Eniac, along with 4 other female mathematicians. However, at a dinner to celebrate the first demonstration to the media in February 1946, none of the women who had worked on the computer were invited. Jean Bartik later wrote: 

Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration.

Isaacson also pays homage to Grace Hopper, who was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and who he credits with a program language called COBOL, which uses words rather than numbers. A popular late-night figure, David Letterman, even referred to her as the “Queen of Software”, in 1986.

Recognition for these women is long overdue, and Isaacson’s book has put them back in their rightful place as important contributors to the digital age, as well as role models for the next generations. Without them, we may not have personal computers, smartphones, or be able to play music files. And with them, girls can start realizing that computer programming isn’t just a boys club, and that coding is for girls, too!

Share your views with @4womeninscience #WWDC #womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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