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10 women who changed the tech industry forever

History might have forgotten the contributions of these female pioneers, but you shouldn’t.


Olivia A. Cole

Internet Culture

If you look up “famous computer scientists” on Google, an image search will display an array of faces you might find in the audience of a Dave Matthews Band concert, overwhelmingly white and male. Indeed, women in STEM fields are seen as a kind of unicorn: rare, and in some companies entirely mythical, even Google’s tech force is only 17 percent female. Lists of the greatest programmers of all time are almost always filled entirely with men—almost always white—with the rare exception of the inclusion of Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, is known as the founder of scientific computing, and serves as the eponymous hero of such organizations as the Ada Initiative and the Association for Women in Computing’s Ada Lovelace Awards.

Although “Amazing Grace” Hopper is sometimes mentioned, Lovelace often serves as a token when talking about women in technology. However, her isolation in the midst of the male-dominated history of computer science does not reflect reality: There have been many, many other women who have made their careers in computer science, but whose stories have been erased and forgotten, many of their successes snubbed due to sexism. In fact, says Kathy Kleiman, founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project, “Programming was a pink-collar profession for about the first decade. There were some men, but it was actually hugely women.” 

Lest we forget these female pioneers, here are ten that should be remembered alongside their male counterparts.

1) Betty Holberton and the ENIAC Six

The ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, built for a project run by the U.S. Army in Philadelphia as part of a secret World War II project. This was before the masculinization of computer programming began, when it was a field into which women were welcomed in order to assist with the war efforts; at the time, operating calculating machines was considered “women’s work,” as it was thought to be just key-punching

And so a group of six women—called “the ENIAC Girls”—was recruited by the male engineers/managers to assist in the programming of ENIAC, despite the fact that there were no books on the subject to learn from. The ENIAC Six learned to program without programming language or tools, but by the time they were finished, the machine ran a ballistics trajectory in mere seconds. According to professor Nathan Ensmenger of the University of Pennsylvania:

The ENIAC girls were trained to understand the internal wiring diagrams of the ENIAC machine, and … could diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube. Since [they] knew the application and the machine, [they] learned to diagnose troubles as well as, if not better than, the engineer. In a few cases, the local craft knowledge that these female programmers accumulated significantly affected the design of the ENIAC and subsequent computers. ENIAC programmer Betty Holberton recalled one particularly significant episode when she convinced John von Neumann to include a ‘stop instruction’ in the machine: Although initially dismissive, von Neumann eventually recognized the programmer’s legitimate need for such an instruction.

Yet when the ENIAC was unveiled to the public and the press in 1946, the ENIAC programmers were never introduced— they remained invisible. Despite this, Holberton said before her death in 2001: “I had a fantastic life. Everything I did was the beginning of something new.” And it was.

2) Erna Schneider Hoover

If you’ve ever called a business and gotten through to a representative (which should be pretty much every time), you have Erna Schneider Hoover to thank. Dr. Hoover is said to have “revolutionized modern communication” with her invention of stored program control. With it, the computer would automatically adjust a call’s acceptance rate, which helped eliminate overloading problems. Switching systems of the telephones were moving from electronic to computer-based technologies at the time, and the systems had an annoying habit of freezing up when inundated with too many calls. 

Dr. Hoover earned one of the first patents in software ever issued for her invention, and the technology is still used today in call centers around the world. Can you imagine what calling Verizon support would be like without Dr. Hoover?

3) Karen Spärck Jones

A true pioneer contributes something to the world that we couldn’t imagine life without. Karen Spärck Jones’ development of information retrieval (IR) pioneered techniques that enabled users to work with computers using ordinary words instead of equations or codes, a breakthrough that was critical in the subsequent development of search engines, still used by most of them today, including Google. Her work has informed much of the technology we work with daily, from the aforementioned search engines to spoken document retrieval and automatic text summarization. 

Yet on her Wikipedia page, her contributions are limited to a few short lines; her work summarized as blips in computational history. And in resources like Search Engine History, her name is nowhere to be found. Ironically, Spärck Jones was famous for saying: “I think it’s very important to get more women into computing.” According to Spärck Jones, “computing is too important to be left to men.”

4) Judy Malloy

In 1992, a New York Times book critic crowned a young novelist named Michael Joyce as the “granddaddy of full-length hypertext fictions.” His book was called Afternoon, released on a floppy disk in 1987. Yet a full year earlier, in then-burgeoning Silicon Valley, a self-taught computer programmer, conceptual artist, and single mom named Judy Malloy had already written and programmed the first hypertext novel, titled Uncle Roger. In it, the reader clicks through fragments of the story in whatever order they choose, which causes the narrative to change along the way. Malloy invented a new database system to tell her story, and the experience of reading the book was completely groundbreaking for her time. 

Yet while some male pioneers of hypertext enjoy status as full professors, Malloy and other female hypertext pioneers either struggle to find academic employment or are adjuncts. This isn’t the first time that a man received credit for female inventions, as women’s contributions to DNA, nuclear fission, signal flares, and even the board game Monopoly were also erased.

5) Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman is known in technical circles as the “Mother of the Internet”—a title that she hates, insisting that no one person is responsible for its creation. But based on surface-level information, you’d think the “founding fathers of the Internet” were just that: men. Infographics that trace the people involved with the development of this thing many of us now rely upon for our livelihood solely credit men for doing the work, but Perlman’s invention of spanning tree protocol (STP) is fundamental to the operation of network bridges.

“The Internet was not invented by any individual,” Perlman has said. “There are lots of people who like to take credit for it, and it drives them crazy when anyone other than them seems to want credit, so it seems best to just stay out of their way.” But by “staying out of the way,” it seems that the Perlmans of technology history are out of sight, out of mind. Part of the problem, as Walter Isaacson writes in his book The Innovators, is that “the creation myth seeks to make heroes out of individuals, rather than the group.” Isaacson continues, “[W]hen the contribution of the collective is ignored, it is usually a man who gets the credit.”

6. Evelyn Boyd Granville

In 2011, CNN Money asked 20 Silicon Valley companies to release data from their annual reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Only three replied: Dell, Ingram Micro, and Intel. Out of those companies’ self-reported numbers, 68 percent of the 44,000 workers were white, and only 33 percent were women. Thus, as much as the technology industry struggles with sexism, it struggles with racism as well. As such, women of color face a double dose of difficulty when attempting to break into technology.

Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first African-American women to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, went to Yale and Smith in an era of racial segregation. During her career, she developed computer programs that were used for trajectory analysis in the Mercury Project (the first U.S. manned mission in space) and in the Apollo Project (which sent U.S. astronauts to the moon). 

While a search of her name produces some biographical information, a more extensive examination of her contributions are difficult to find. This erasure of research and work contributed by black women (and women in general) in the past is a dismal precursor to tech’s current issues. Andre Brock, assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa, said in an interview:

This attitude is industry-wide: investors, financiers, corporate shops, development houses, tech manufacturers, tech media, and even audiences suffer from biases. Information tech is perceived as a masculine (and primarily white) endeavor. This is particularly evident when you look at videogame blogs. When authors such as Evan Narcisse and Patricia Hernandez bring up issues of race and gender in gaming, the comments are filled with pejoratives, dismissals, and even profanity.

That interview was given in 2012. Imagine what Evelyn Boyd Granville dealt with during Jim Crow.

7. Hedy Lamarr

On the hiring of men over women in computer science roles, Janet Abbate, a professor at Virginia Tech, says, “It’s kind of the classic thing. You pick people who look like what you think a computer person is, which is probably a teenage boy that was in the computer club in high school.”

Hedy Lamarr certainly did not “look like what you think a computer person” would look like. She was a movie star and beauty icon famous for a controversial nude scene (in 1933’s Ecstasy), but while people might recognize her face, they are usually not familiar with her invention of spread spectrum technology. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel. 

Needless to say, this achieved great things for U.S. military ships, but it also served as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections), and CDMA (used in some cordless and wireless telephones). However, her achievements didn’t receive recognition until much later and were often casually dismissed even as they were widely used.

Despite her glamorous looks, Lamarr rejected beauty as the thing for which one should be known. “Any girl can be glamorous,” Lamarr said. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” I think we can assume what Lamarr’s thoughts would be on Barbie’s recent misstep with their absurd Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer book.

8) Sophie Wilson

Microsoft recently landed in hot water when its CEO, Satya Nadella, said in a speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing that women in tech shouldn’t ask for raises.

It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. That might be one of the initial ‘super powers,’ which quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back because somebody’s going to know that’s the kind of person that I want to trust.

Nadella’s gaffe illustrates the latent sexism found in technology—and every other industry—with this expectation of feminine patience and unassuming humility from women in tech. One female figure in the industry that certainly didn’t wait for “karma” is Sophie Wilson, an unsung heroine of the 21st century, with a career that has spanned 35 years and has generated 59 patents. Her contributions include the development of some of the world’s first commercially successful personal computers and the creation of the original ARM computer processor, whose descendants are now found inside most of the world’s mobile computers and smartphones. 

If Radia Perlman is the mother of the Internet, Wilson is the mother of the smartphone and tablet. Of her process, Wilson says, “Most engineers like to proceed from A to B to C in a series of logical steps. I’m the rare engineer who says the answer is obviously Z and we will get on with that while you guys work out how to do all the intermediate steps. It makes me a dangerous person to employ in IT but a useful one.”

I’ll say.

9) Carla Meninsky

Anyone paying attention on the Internet in the last few months is aware of #Gamergate, an online anti-feminist “movement” that works toward the goal of chasing feminist women out of game development and commentary. The idea that video games “belong” to male gamers drives a lot of the vitriol from Gamergaters, despite facts the fact that studies show a majority of gamers are women. While Gamergaters may believe women being involved in game development and play is something new, the fact of the matter is that women have been involved with dev since the beginning.

Carla Meninsky, for example, was hired as a game designer for the Atari 2600 console in the early 1980s, although her name will appear on virtually no list about early game developers and designers. Dona Bailey, too, worked for Atari as an engineer but disappeared from the industry, she admits, due to pressure and criticism from her male counterparts. Unfortunately, not much has changed—developer Brianna Wu recently had to flee her home due to Gamergate threats. 

10) Kimberly Bryant

Kimberly Bryant hasn’t been erased yet, struggling for recognition in the present. Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code, an organization that seeks to introduce girls from underrepresented communities to computer science. The diversity problem is plain: In fact, black women are only 2 percent of the United States’ science and engineering workforce, while white men comprise 51 percent. Of Google’s 17 percent female tech force, less than 1 percent are black.

Bryant’s work brings back to mind Kathy Kleiman’s mission at the ENIAC Programmers Project. According to ReadWrite’s Selena Larson, who is also a contributor at the Daily Dot, “[Kleiman’s] motivation, isn’t just correcting the record of the past.” Larson writes, “It’s building a future that looks different from a history that’s been airbrushed to look more male than it really was.”

“If our initial pioneers are invisible,” Kleiman says, as she seeks to uncover women in computer science who history has erased or forgotten, “then our later role models are lost.”

In a world where women are told to wait patiently like good girls for the raises they deserve; where they are called “abrasive” or “bossy” for leading, while men are given raises for the same qualities; where they get rape and death threats merely for existing in a field thought to be owned by men; where their contributions to technology are erased and their successes are snubbed; we must remember to take notice of these women and ensure their accomplishments are noted, celebrated, and recorded.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, said in an interview that we need to start giving women the credit they deserve. “One way of changing this,” she said, “is carefully documenting the role women played in the dawn of technology.” Hopefully this list helps achieve that goal.

Photo via Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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