When I graduated from college people would ask me, “How does it feel to be a pioneer in your field?” There are so few women in this profession that just by entering it you’re doing groundbreaking work. For a moment I was proud of myself and then I thought, “Should I be proud of this? That some accident of my birth made me female and I’m interested in the power of these new machines?”
I went on to develop software and I loved the work. Every once in a while I would hear a story of a woman who came before me who had really done groundbreaking work. Though sometimes stories of everyday women who loved the work were even more inspiring. I will share stories from three eras of computing. I’ll start before the modern digital computer was invented.
Did you know the first computers were human? Indeed. One colleague told me about his mother-in-law who had studied math in college. She was hired directly out of school without even an interview to be a computer. This was actually a common practice in the early mid-20th century. Scientific labs would recruit women math majors to operate first slide rules and then later mechanical calculators to compute. They called it “pink collar” work.
The next age of computing starts with some of these women. During the second world war it was a time of great technical advancement. We were constantly seeking to improve the new machines of war that we invented and sent overseas. In the Ballistics Research Lab right near here in Maryland they recruited women math majors to help them with the war effort. Every time they developed new artillery they would need to calculate these ballistic tables to figure out how you have to angle the gun in order to hit a specific target. Before every new type of artillery would need to be deployed they would have these women with their slide rules calculate immense ballistic tables so that for every distance they would record a different angle that would be written up in these great big books for the soldiers at war. This was quite time consuming.
There were these two fellows who had this idea for a machine that could do this much quicker. They called their machine the ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator. It was actually much more than a calculator. It was the first electronic general purpose computer and they needed someone to program this general purpose computer to generate these ballistic tables. They picked six women who were the best “computers” of the group for this important assignment.
The project was very top secret. These women weren’t allowed to even see the machine. They were giving wiring diagrams and then they were asked to figure out how they would connect the wires in order to have this machine do the calculations. Using this initially purely paper-thought experiment they were successful in programming the computer. They eventually had access to the machine and they lay the groundwork for this entirely new industry.
Around that same time perhaps the most famous woman in computing, Admiral Grace Hopper, was just starting her career in the military. Long before she was an admiral she developed the first compiler. “Nobody believe that,” she said. “They told me computers could only do arithmetic.” I first knew of her as the engineer who had coined the term “debugging” when she isolated a computer glitch to an actual bug hidden amongst the vacuum tubes that was creating a problem in the software.
Now, I’m going to fast-forward to the modern era even though there were many remarkable women in between. A few years ago I learned about Barbara Liskov. In 1968, the year I was born, she was one of the first women to get a PhD in computer science. Even though women had really created this field it as a long time before they were getting degrees in the university for this, it was a long time before anyone could even get a degree for this. She pioneered one of the core principles of object-oriented programming. It was only a few years ago that I learned the name of this principle, the Liskov Substitution Principle and it was quite a long time after that, I learned that Liskov was a woman.
I want to ask you today, as you reflect on your daily work, do you know the names and stories of the people who created the techniques that you apply everyday? If all of those names are of one gender or one heritage you are likely missing more than half the picture. I don’t expect you to remember the names of these women. I do hope that if anyone ever remarks to you how few women there are in tech, you might mention to them that there was a time when 100% of software developers were women.
There was a time when software development was actually considered women’s work. In every field there are people with incredible talent who make significant contributions and are then forgotten from history through an accident of their birth. Sometimes we can find these stories and retell them.
Transcript of my second talk at Smithsonian Toastmasters.