The Wonderful Story of Women in Computing. And why we haven’t heard about it before

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When we picture the classic techxpert, our picture is usually that of a man.

We are all guilty of this prejudice, and with good reason: today's computing industry is largely male-dominated. The figures we look to for inspiration are mostly male – Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin – and computer science degrees are far more popular among young men than young women.

On Tuesday, when Uber finally released its diversity report, revealing a leadership that is 88.7% male, we pretended to be shocked. But we weren't really.

The saddest thing is that Uber is not in the minority; in fact their diversity statistics are pretty much in line with what we've come to expect from the tech industry. Google's tech staff are around 19% female, Facebook's are 17%. (Neither can manage more than 1% black employees, by the way.)

Tech rules the world: no workplace is immune to its expanding influence. For this reason, its failure to represent communities is something that should concern us.

And yet it wasn't always this way.

The history of women in computing is rich and varied – it just doesn't get talked about much.

Ada Lovelace, one of the first computer programmers, was born in 1815, the daughter of Lord and Lady Byron. Ada's mother had her daughter tutored almost exclusively in mathematics as a sort of countermeasure to her father's poetry.

ada lovelace

Walter Isaacson tells Ada's story in his book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Working with Charles Babbage – who was planning a machine to make mathematical calculations – the seventeen year old Ada realises that a computer would be able to "do anything that can be noted logically. Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers."

Babbage's designs and Lovelace's writings were later read by those developing the first computer and the programming language ADA was named in homage to her.

The 'queen of software'

Over a century later, the computer industry of the 40s and 50s was dominated by women. "Programming, computer design, computer maintenance, innovation, even "war machines"—computers used to decrypt enemy communications—were all traditionally feminized careers".

During World War II, when female maths majors were quite common, many skilled mathematicians joined to help with the war effort. One such woman was Grace Hopper.

grace hopper

Known as the 'Queen of Software', Hopper discovered a way to programme computers using words instead of numbers. "You would be using a programming language that would allow you almost to just give it instructions, almost in regular English, and it would compile it for whatever hardware it happened to be," explains Isaacson. "So that made programming more important than the hardware, 'cause you could use it on any piece of hardware."

Yet around the time of Hopper's retirement the number of women studying computer science went into decline. Characters like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became the public faces of tech and women were somehow written out of the history of computing.

Without role models to show young girls what's possible, our picture of the male tech geek who grows up to run a software empire will remain intact. We need books like Isaacson's to remind us what women have contributed to computing... and to help us imagine what's possible for the future.


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