If you search for “history of women in computer science,” you will find dozens of articles detailing a brief summary of women creating the field, and then how we were systematically excluded from it in extreme detail. As a girl looking for peers and validation in the field of computer science, being shown every way you will not find that decreases confidence in moving forward.
If you show a girl an army of men in front of her and say “go get ‘em,” she will be empowered by spite at best, probably discouraged, and scared at worst. If you tell her that authority figures in her field have been against her before she even started, she might as well choose a different career path.
However, if you show a girl an army of women behind her and say “they’re waiting for you. Go join them,” she is more likely to smile and take off running towards them.
Allow me to introduce you to your army.
Our history begins before Google. Before Microsoft. Before Apple. Before FORTRAN (Formula Translator, a popular early programming language), the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer), and the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). Our story begins with Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace—or as she is far better known: Ada Lovelace.
Ada Lovelace (left), the daughter of Lord Byron, was born in December of 1815. Lord Byron was a notorious poet-made-playboy. His wife, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, wanted to make her daughter nothing like her father. To accomplish this, she filled Ada’s life with math and science instructors. At 17, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician and inventor. He built a “difference engine,” meant to perform mathematical calculations. He conceptualized a machine called the “analytical engine,” meant to perform more complex calculations than simple addition or subtraction. Though this machine was never built, Ada believed that it could accomplish extremely complex calculations by performing operations one step at a time, each step working with the result of the previous step. She also believed such a machine could be able to repeat a series of steps.
Sound familiar? At its foundation, modern programming is telling a computer what to do and in what order to do it. This follows Ada’s ideas precisely: perform one operation, then perform the next with the result of the previous one. Repeating certain operations over and over to achieve a result also matches the concept of “looping,” a process close to the heart of modern programming. Lovelace’s and Babbage’s notes were consulted while designing early computers, which takes us to world war two and the construction of the ENIAC.
During the war, calculating ballistics trajectories by hand was considered “women’s work.” The ENIAC was designed to do the math that women were doing for the war, but much faster. Two male engineers, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, designed the ENIAC, but to program it they needed the help of the women performing the calculations. The ENIAC took up an entire room and was covered in thousands of wires and switches. “Re-programming” the ENIAC meant re-wiring the entire machine.
The team of women Mauchly and Eckert hired were “Jean Jennings Bartik, who would later lead the development of computer storage and memory, Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton, who would go on to create the first software application,” Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum.
The men on this project were concerned with the machine–how it was built and designed. All of the math was the job of the team of women. At first, they were only shown rough diagrams of the machine, unable to make tangible progress until they were granted security clearance to go into the room where the ENIAC was. The women integral to the success of the ENIAC were seen in photos, but never named. The night before the ENIAC was debuted, the men who built it went to dinner and the women were not invited. The problem was, the ENIAC didn’t WORK. The men who built it weren’t concerned with what program it was running, the machine was impressive on its own. While the men were drinking and dining, the women stayed behind and worked on it all through the night. By the time it was debuted, the ENIAC did its job, the men were given all the credit, and the women were not named until years later.
The ENIAC led to the UNIVAC, which was designed by the same men. The UNIVAC was worked on by Admiral Grace Hopper (left), who joined the navy in world war two and after the war remained a reserve officer. Hopper and her team came up with the first compiler for “computer languages,” following Hopper’s idea that you could give a computer instructions almost in English and the compiler would translate it for the machine. This compiler led to the invention of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), an early programming language. Hopper did not invent COBOL, but she encouraged its usage.
If you saw the movie Hidden Figures (2016), you know that one of the women we follow is Dorothy Vaughan, the first black supervisor at NASA and head of “West Area Computers,” a team of black women who performed the calculations NASA was implementing in their launch, flight, and landing procedures. NASA followed the same trend as much of the United States in the mid-twentieth century: men built the machines, women did the math.
Like the military, NASA wanted calculations performed faster than humans doing the work by hand. Dorothy Vaughan became “an expert FORTRAN programmer” and worked on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program, one of NASA’s most successful programs that put a satellite in orbit.
Speaking of NASA, have you ever heard the phrase “your phone now-a-days has more computing power than NASA had when they put people on the moon”? In one sense, a correct phrase. There is more electronic computing power in your phone. Computers and computer programming were still in the early stages of development and use when NASA put people on the moon.
You know what your phone DOESN’T have? A team of women calculating trajectories. Your phone doesn’t have Katherine Johnson (the primary subject of Hidden Figures, computer for West Area Computing and promoted to the team that put John Glenn in orbit and got him back safely). Your phone doesn’t have Dorothy Vaughan. Your phone doesn’t have Margaret Hamilton.
Margaret Hamilton was a student at MIT in the 1960s and became the head of the team that set the foundation for modern “software engineering” (the term Hamilton created and used). Her team produced the navigation software that got Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon in the Apollo 11 mission. In a famous photo (left), Hamilton stands next to a stack of what looks like books that is literally as tall as she is. All that paper is the code of the navigation software her and her team wrote.
NASA didn’t have electronic computing power. NASA had Margaret Hamilton and her team. In 2016, Margaret Hamilton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor for contributions to the nation and society–by President Barack Obama.
So, in the legacy of these and thousands more extraordinary women, why do aspiring STEM-enthusiastic-girls not see themselves in the field? Unfortunately, it’s because our numbers are down. In 1985, 37% of computer science majors were women. That statistic has since fallen to below 20% in 2006, and in recent years is reported to be closer to 17%.
After world war two, women in computing were one of the few jobs not given back to men coming home, since it was never their job to begin with. Women created the field of computer programming and after the war there were more jobs to be done than there were men who knew how to do it. The women stayed, taught the men, and were hired alongside them to do the job. Throughout the 60s, coding was advertised to women as a source of independence, income, and–for better or for worse–a way to apply “feminine skills” to telling computers what to do and meet men in the male-dominated industry of engineering.
We are now in an age of skyrocketing technological growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an expected growth rate in the field of computer science (from 2016 to 2026) of 24%. The average growth rate for all jobs in America is 7%. Now more than ever, this country (and in a broader sense, the world) cannot afford to ignore women in the field of computer science. There are more jobs than there are programmers. Society is becoming more and more reliant on the software we produce.
Women conceptualized, actualized, and created computer programming. Not only do we belong here, without us computer science might not be here. So look around you. Look where we’re headed. Look at the army behind you, smile, and go join them.