Women in Technology: Pioneers

The role of women in technological innovation hasn’t always been well-documented or even acknowledged. While society’s advanced quite a ways since women in the United States got the right to vote in 1920, they still face discrimination discrimination today. However, acceptance of women as leaders in technology is growing, and an increasing number of organizations are working to encourage girls to get onto college STEM tracks.

In 2010, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) published the paper
Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The study revealed societal stereotypes and cultural bias were at least partly to blame for a lack of women’s interest in the STEM fields. “If women and men in science and engineering know that this bias exists, they can work to interrupt the unconscious thought process that led to it,” it said. In other words, we can change societial views on purpose. Longheld misconceptions about the relationship of gender to mathematical aptitude can be shattered with each new generation.

Girls who do well in math and science at a young age are still thought of as especially gifted when their performance matches or slightly outpaces their male counterparts. But although gender bias against women has narrowed in the last 30 years, Why So Few? outlines stereotypes that influence women to pursue careers outside of STEM:

  • Men are mathematically superior
  • Girls lack interest in STEM careers
  • Workplace concerns like work-life balance

The very first computers were mathematicians, not machines. Thousands of female mathematicians computed ballistics trajectories in World War II, proving that women were as capable as men in a traditionally male field. To understand the depth of impact women have had in technology, it’s worth considering these technological pioneers — who happened to be women.

Ada Lovelace

A mathematician, Lovelace is widely regarded as the founder of scientific computing  by her work with Charles Babbage. In 1843, she completed a French-English translation of a scientific paper on the Analytical Engine, which included extensive notes of her own. Though the machine wasn’t built by university researchers until the 21st century, Lovelace’s contribution earned her the title of first computer programmer in history.

Jean Bartik (Betty Jean Jennings)

Another mathematician, Jean Bartik was among the first group of programmers to write and execute programs on ENIAC. During 1941, she worked alongside a group of talented mathematicians in a top secret ballistics calculation program at Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Their contribution to the war efforts was largely undocumented until 1985.

Betty Holberton

Holberton was a mathematician hired by the Army in 1945 to work as a computer, as Bartik was in 1941. After the war, her work included the development standards for COBOL and FORTRAN. She credited her father as her mentor, saying there was no difference between boys and girls in her home.

Grace Hopper

A Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, Grace Hopper joined the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard in 1944. She is well-known for her work on the pioneering Mark II and ENIAC computers. She’s credited with the creation of the basis of modern computing through the compiler, code optimization, formula translation, subroutines, the linking loader and symbiotic manipulation. Hopper was a contributor to COBOL after the war.

Anita Borg

Anita Bord received her Ph.D. in computer science in 1981. She was the founder of the Institute for Women in Technology, which was renamed for her after her death in 2003. Her goal was to increase the impact of women in technology and help industry, academia and government to recruit and develop women leaders.

Erna Hoover

Hoover developed computerized call switching technology while working as a researcher at Bell Labs. Her approach to preventing call overload revolutionized modern communications. She later became the company’s first female technical supervisor. In 1971 she was issued one of the first every software patents.

Radia Perlman

While working as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, Perlman developed protocols for routing network traffic. Her work earned her the title of “The Mother of the Internet,” since it enables scalability of network traffic. She holds over 70 software patents.

Limor Fried

An electrical engineer, Limor Fried was the first female engineer to appear on the cover of Wired Magazine. The MIT graduate founded Adafruit Industries, a maker shop that sells project equipment and tools for all ages. Her passion for electrical engineering and computer programing drives the store’s offerings. Adafruit Industries sells all manner of tinkering bits for Android, Ardruino, Raspberry Pi, robotics, displays, controllers and batteries among other things. Fried shares her knowledge of electrical engineering through the weekly web show Ask an Engineer and project tutorials available at Adafruit Industries.