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Tech is for girls... and always has been!

18/09/2017 by Nandip Aulak


Today, it's hard to deny that the IT and tech industry is a male-dominated field. Women earn only 28%[1] of computer science degrees, while the quit rate for women in the high tech industry is 41%[2], twice as high as it is for men. These two statistics would suggest that perhaps women aren't just discouraged from entering the tech field, but may find it a challenging environment to work in both in terms of treatment and pay.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg recently spoke out against the gender pay gap, prevalent in the tech space where giants like Google have been accused of systematically underpaying women. When confronted to produce the facts, Google simply said that collecting wage data for the company is "too expensive and burdensome."

But this wasn't always the case. After the Second World War, all the way through to the 1960s, women were the largest trained technical workforce of the UK's computing industry. During the War itself, the women of Bletchley Park played crucial roles in code breaking and communications. History is full of women who have made a lasting impact on our world today.

Let's Start At The Beginning...

When we consider the truly great thinkers of the ancient world, names like Plato, Euclid and Pythagoras spring to mind. These early pioneers explored the fundamental structures of our world and society. Of all the characters of the ancient world, one name stood above, "surpassing," as Socrates of Constantinople put it, "all the philosophers of her own time."

Hypatia of Alexandria

Greek Mathematician, astronomer, inventor & philosopher

350AD - 415AD

Hypatia of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, inventor and philosopher. Born around 350AD, she was educated in Athens and around 400AD, became head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria. A teacher of philosophy and astronomy, Hypatia often advised Orestes, the governor of Alexandria.

Her astronomy studies undermined the established thinking of Ptolemy, whose theories had stood for 300 years, and demonstrated the need for independent observation as part of the scientific process.

Hypatia's Legacy

Due to being a female philosopher, there are no recognised written works by Hypatia that have survived to the present day. However, evidence suggests that she contributed to a number of commentaries with her father, Theon. Her contributions to technology are reputed to include the invention of the hydrometer, or possibly hydroscopium, depending on which interpretation you read.

Today she stands in among the canon of ancient thinkers, easily the equal of the Pythagoras, Euclid and certainly better than Ptolemy!

That's just ancient history, right?

Okay, let's skip forward through time. Here you might expect a word or two about Ada Lovelace. The champion of the Ada Intitative and the Ada Lovelace Awards, she is often held up as the heroine in the world of technology. While her contributions to technology as the first computer programmer cannot be disputed, her myth as the only woman in the field of computing simply isn't true. The STEM fields, and computing specifically, were once dominated by women.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin

Astronomer & astrophysicist

1900 - 1979

Something of a modern day Hypathia, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an astronomer and astrophysicist. In 1925, her Ph.D thesis explained that the stars are made up mostly of hydrogen and helium, making them the most abundant elements in the universe.

She showed that the great variation in stellar absorption lines was due to differing amounts of ionization at different temperatures, not to different amounts of elements. Following this achievement, she went on to make over 3,000,000 observations of stars and contributed to our understanding of the structure of the Milky Way.

Payne-Gaposchkin retired from active teaching in 1966 and was subsequently appointed Emeritus Professor of Harvard. She continued her research as a member of staff at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and remained scientifically active, working with Harvard Observatory for a further twenty years.

Cecilia Payne's Legacy

With Payne-Gaposchkin's Ph.D., the idea of women in astronomy entered the mainstream. While Harvard was already more inclusive than other institutions, Payne's influence paved the way for future astrophysicists. As a teacher, her students included Paul W. Hodge, Helen Sawyer Hogg and many other luminaries of astronomy who would all go on to make important discoveries.

Hedy Lamarr

Actress & inventor

1914 - 2000

Find a woman who can do both. Never has that phrase been more appropriate than when you describe award-winning  film actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr, who built the fundamental signal system that allows us to use Wi-Fi every day.

A popular actress with MGM between the 1930s-1950s, Hedy Lamarr appeared in a number of popular pictures including I Take This Woman, Comrade X, and the Academy Award-winning epic, Samson and Delilah.

In her spare time, she was a self-taught tinkerer. She developed improvements on traffic stop signs and invented a tablet that could dissolve in water and create a carbonated drink. During World War II, Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes could easily be jammed by Axis forces, causing the torpedo to go off course. With the knowledge she had gained about torpedoes from her first husband, she came up with the idea of somehow creating a frequency-hopping signal that could not be tracked or jammed.

Along with her friend and composer,  George Antheil, she succeeded in creating a frequency -hopping device that synchronised a miniaturised player-piano mechanism with radio signals. They drafted designs for the frequency-hopping system, which they patented.

Hedy Lamarr's Legacy

Hedy Lamarr's device never saw action during the War. The technology was difficult to implement onto Navy ships during at the time, but by the 1960, an updated version of her design was present within Navy systems.

Now known as "spread spectrum technology", Lamarr's legacy serves as the basis for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections to this day.

Grace Hopper

Computer scientist & US Navy rear admiral

1906 - 1992

Also known as "Amazing Grace", Grace Hopper was a pioneer computer programmer who popularised the ideas of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, an early high-level language still in use today.

After joining the Naval Reserve in 1944, she was assigned to the development of the Harvard Mark I computer, one of the first early computers. In 1952, she published a paper on compilers, arguing that programming language could be developed using English words. This ultimately led to the development of COBOL, a major language used today in data processing.

Her career in the Navy lasted until 1986, where she reached the rank of Rear Admiral. Later, she found work for the Digital Equipment Corporation, where she acted as a consultant. She has been awarded 40 honorary degrees, the National Medal of Technology and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Grace Hopper's Legacy

COBOL remains the most popular business language to this day and Hopper's later work led to the creation of the FLOW-MATIC and MATH-MATIC programming languages. Amazing Grace also developed standards for testing computer systems and components that also persist to this day.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is a convention for Women in the field of Computer Science and Technology. It is named after Hopper to honour her for her work and influence in the field of computing, and her push for more women to enter and stay in the tech field.

Karen Spärck Jones

Computer scientist & advocate

1935 - 2007

Moving into computing in the late 1950s, Jones enjoyed a successful career as both a scientist and an advocate for women in computing. Passionate about the value of her work, Jones once said “computing is too important to be left to men.”

In 1972, Karen developed her most important contribution to computing. In a paper entitled A Statistical Interpretation of Term Specificity and Its Application in Retrieval, Jones outlined the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF) weighting in information retrieval.

An inverse document frequency factor adds weight to certain keywords in order to make terms like the have less relevance when making search queries.

Karen Spärck Jones' Legacy

Karen Spärck Jones’ development of information retrieval pioneered techniques that enabled users to work with computers using ordinary words instead of equations or codes.  This breakthrough 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 search engines to spoken document retrieval and automatic text summarisation.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

IT pioneer, entrepreneur & philanthropist

1933 - present

Arriving in London at the age of five as a Kindertransport child refugee, Dame Shirley would rise to become a leading light of British IT, advocate for women in tech and programmed Concorde's flight recorder. To fight the good fight in the male-dominated world of tech, she adopted the name, Steve, to make disguise her gender and not be subject to male prejudice.

After developing her computing skills at the Post Office Research Station in the 1950s, Dame Shirley faced a nonstop professional battle as the gender shift in British computing  began to really pick up. In the face of repeated workplace discrimination, she went it alone in the 1960s, at the age of 29, and built up a thriving software business for female computer programmers. She would adopt the name, Steve, to help her in the male-dominated business world.

The goal of her business, Freelance Programmers, was to create job opportunities for women with dependents. To this aim, she predominantly employed women and had just 3 male programmers in the first 300 staff until the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made the practice illegal.

Dame Shirley's Legacy

Dame Shirley's team's projects included programming Concorde's black box flight recorder, among many other successful projects. She was awarded an OBE in 1980, has been the President of the British Computer Society and has donated most of her wealth to charities.

Today, Dame Shirley focuses on her philanthropy work and remains a figurehead of women in IT today, inspiring a new generation.

She is an advocate for anonymised CVs, stating that it is up to everyone involved in hiring to “teach ourselves about the hidden bias we all have, and work in ways to negate those biases”.

Women have shaped the course of technology forever

As a woman in the STEM fields, Ada Lovelace is far from alone. Women have been tinkering, researching and experimenting in the tech industry for years and have contributed techniques and discoveries that we rely on to this day. From Wi-Fi use to Googling yourself, fundamental elements of our technological lives can be traced back to the achievements of these worthy women.

The work of women in tech over the last 70 years has helped advance technology to greater and greater heights.

So what happened?

So why are there less women in this industry? Both in the UK and Silicon Valley, there is evidence that there is a stigma against women in this field.

In the 50s and 60s, managers perceived women as ideal candidates for faceless computing work because they didn't need career progression or long term goals. They believed that women would work for a while, then quit and have children. A female workforce didn't get frustrated with a lack of progression nor demand higher wages.

But computing experienced a gender flip, becoming male-identified in the 1970s. Thanks to advancements in technology, the government and industry had grown wise to the power of computers and wanted to integrate their use at a management level. But male managers didn't want to put low level workers, and female ones at that, in charge of computers used at executive levels. Women were systematically phased out and replaced by men who were paid more and had better job titles.

Are these heteronormative cultural baggage still holding women back in tech today? If someone is passionate enough to pursue a career path or desire, they will pursue it, regardless of the industry biases, won't they? How do we go about changing the perceptions of the tech industry and STEM field in general? Will more prevalent role models in tech help inspire young women in the future?

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