We often forget that a lot of technology has been birthed by remarkable women, milestones in history marked by powerful females who went against societal norms to pursue their passions and in that pursuit they have catalyzed much of the technology movement. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women held only 25 percent of all “professional computing technology” jobs in 2015. That same year, women held 57 percent of all professional occupations in the country.
In honor of International Women’s Day 2019 and their theme #BalanceforBetter, I took a look at some of the most inspiring and influential women who have made their mark on technology. These women paved the way historically and are currently innovating new ways for women of all backgrounds to flourish.
Ada Lovelace is the woman credited with writing instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s and considered the world’s first computer programmer. With a talent for numbers and language, Lovelace was asked to translate an article on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine meant to perform mathematical calculations. She not only translated the original French text into English but added her own thoughts and ideas about the machine. Her work, which ended up being 3x longer than the original article, was published in 1843 in an English science journal.
Her notes described how codes could be created for the engine to handle letters and symbols in addition to numbers. She also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, known today as looping. Lovelace’s contributions to computer science weren’t discovered until the 1950s. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada” after Lovelace.
Ever wonder where the term “bug” came from to describe a computer malfunction? Grace Hopper. In 1943, Hopper joined the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service); only a year later was commissioned as a Lieutenant and assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University. Her team produced the Mark I, an early prototype of the electronic computer. Here she wrote a 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator that outlined the fundamental operating principles of computing machines. It was during her work on the Mark I that Hopper coined the term computer “bug.” Grace Hopper invented coding itself.
After WWII, Hopper continued her pioneering work on computer technology. She was involved in the creation of the first all-electronic digital computer (UNIVAC), invented the first computer compiler that translates written instructions into code ready directly by computers, and co-developed one of the earliest standardized computer languages, COBOL. Her work earned her the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest decoration given to those who did not participate in combat, and she was the first and (then) only woman to hold the title of distinguished fellow of the British Computer Society. In 2016, 32 years after her death, Hopper was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Joining IBM in 1939, Ruth Amonette was the first woman to hold a corporate position at the company and one of the few women, at the time, to hold an executive position at any large company in the U.S. Amonette was quickly promoted through the ranks and became the first female vice president at IBM in 1943 at the mere age of 27, after only four years of employment with IBM. Her business achievements garnered national attention and two years after her VP appointing, Amonette was recognized by the Women’s National Press Club in Washington as the outstanding woman of the year for the field of business. She fittingly penned and titled her autobiography, Among Equals: A Memoir: The Rise of IBM’s first Woman Corporate Vice President.
Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan
You’ve likely heard of these women through their screen depictions in the movie Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan were two “human computers” at NASA in the 1960s who did the calculations (among other women) for the orbital trajectories of the first men in space, Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn. These women helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to enter space.
Katherine Johnson began her career at NASA working with data from flight tests, but after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in 1957, her mathematics skills were used in a collection of lecture series called Notes on Space Technology given to engineers. Johnson made it possible for these men to go to space by doing trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s mission in 1961 and for John Glenn’s orbital mission, at his request, in 1962. In 2015, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., at age 97.
Dorothy Vaughan became the first black NACA (NASA before desegregation in 1958) supervisor in 1949 and ensured her employees received promotions or pay raises when merited. Upon desegregation in 1958, NASA created an analysis and computation division where Vaughan was an expert FORTRAN programmer which was a prominent computer language at the time. Additionally, Vaughan contributed to a satellite-launching rocket called Scout (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test).
Megan Smith was the first female CTO for the United States, the highest technology role in the nation, and has made it her mission to evangelize technology as a large part of our future and inclusivity is central to that message. In the White House, Smith harnessed the power of data innovation and technology for the American people, guiding the Obama administration’s IT policies and initiatives. After leaving her job in the White House, Smith helped launch the Tech Jobs Tour which aims to get people across the country to understand that technology is a key to their future by hosting a mentoring, networking, jobs-fair event. Of the more than 10,000 people who’ve attended the tour, 48% have been female, 25% LGBTQ, gender non-conforming or other, and 35% were members of minority groups.
Founder of Black Girls Code, Kimberly Bryant is on a mission to provide young women opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology and computer programming with a concentration on entrepreneurial concepts, to develop a new generation of coders who will become builders of technological innovation for the future. With over 20 years in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in a series of technical leadership roles for various Fortune 100 companies, such as Genentech, Merck, and Pfizer. She serves on the National Champions Board for the National Girls Collaborative Project. In 2013, she was honored by the White House as a champion for tech inclusion and her focus on bridging the digital divide for girls. Bryant advocates closing the technology opportunity gap for young minority women. Black Girls Code chapters across the country have trained over 2,000 women, and the number only continues to grow.
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. In 2010, Saujani became the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress, while visiting local schools during the election race she saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand. This led her to start Girls Who Code with the mission to close the gender gap in technology. Her organization offers learning opportunities to students to deepen computer science skills, build confidence, create a pathway from middle and high school into the computing workforce, and foster a sisterhood of peers and mentors on the path to success. According to their website, in 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today, it’s only 24%. If we do nothing, in ten years the number of women in computing will decrease to just 22%.
Girls Who code has served 90,000 girls to date in all 50 states, 83.5 percent of those have been girls in middle and high school. According to their website, Girls Who Code alumni who have already declared their majors are choosing studies in Computer Science or related fields at a rate 15 times the national average.
Vanessa Hurst and Sara Chipps
Vanessa Hurst and Sarah Chipps co-founded Girl Develop It, a nonprofit organization that provides programs for women interested in learning web and software development. Their goal is to create a network of empowered women of all races, education levels, income, and skillsets who learn software development and coding to foster communities that help improve careers and confidence in everyday life. Hurst and Chipps founded Girl Develop It in 2010 with one class and it has since grown throughout 60 cities and over 30 states.
Today, we celebrate every woman who has steadfastly challenged bias in the pursuit of what sets their soul on fire. Because of these powerful women, the glass ceiling is beginning to disappear. The world is pushing for more women to take the lead. It’s inviting them, making space, and giving them a seat at the table. Data can and is solving some of the world’s toughest problems, equipping students with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills is the key to competitiveness in the global marketplace. Providing mentorship and educational opportunities for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds is crucial to bridge the gap and pave a way for more women in technology and innovation.