The Secret History of Women in Tech

By Selena Templeton

Women’s contribution to the tech industry is not actually a secret, but considering how little people know about such pioneers as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton, it might as well be. The most startling juxtaposition is that today (that’s 2016, folks) when you think of females in the tech world — if, indeed, you do at all — you probably think of scantily-clad “chicks” luring allegedly intelligent men to vendors’ booths or special events.

So how did women’s status in the tech industry go from rocket scientist to booth babe?
— Selena Templeton

In the mid-1800s while this country was experiencing the Wild West, the wave of westward expansion via horse-led wagons, Ada Lovelace, a young English mathematician, was busy writing the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is regarded as the first computer programmer. Everyone has heard of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, and most know who Steve Wozniak and Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie are, but few people could tell you about the woman who made Facebook possible 150 years later. Shouldn’t Ada Lovelace be a household name?

In the 1940s while many women were drawing lines up the backs of their calves to mimic stocking seams (because of the war stockings were a luxury few could afford, but society still decreed it inappropriate to go out with bare legs), Grace Hopper* was creating the revolutionary COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), the first computer language that used words instead of numbers. She was also one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and a naval officer during WWII. So why are women not dressing up as Grace Hopper at tech events to lure conference attendees to vendor booths?

You probably know that Hedy Lamarr is a famous actress and “pin-up” girl from the ‘40s and ‘50s. But did you know that she helped develop the technology that eventually made possible today’s wireless communication? Didn’t think so.
— Selena Templeton

In 1960 when women could not get a credit card without a husband’s co-signature and were not permitted to attend Yale, Princeton or Harvard, Margaret Hamilton was a computer scientist and systems engineer who created the on-board flight software that got Apollo 11 to the moon. Considering that a woman basically headed the original “boys club” in the male-centric software industry, why is it that more people today know who Twiggy is than Hamilton?

I could quote statistics such as a mere 14% of engineers in 2012 were women (just 13% more than in 1971) or that a paltry 14.3% of board members at the top 100 tech companies in 2013 were women or that today the cybersecurity industry is made up of a measly 10% women. But statistics don’t fix the problem. Action does.

  • As a society, we need to evolve the “tech bro” culture. As Dr. Chenxi Wang, Chief Strategy Officer at Twistlock and co-founder of this Equal Respect column, reminds us: “Diversity should be in every aspect of your company: language, salary, how you present yourself—whether you’re being Tweeted about or not.” This means that those with power, and not just managers and CEOs, but venture capitalists (the financiers of much of the tech world), must take the lead because “disrupting diversity within firms would help firms mirror the companies whom they invest in, benefiting everyone.” Not to mention that the more diverse the organization, the better they do financially.

  • As a gender, we need to give ourselves more credit when it comes to our abilities and elbow our way into these jobs. Men typically will apply for a job even if they can only check off 60% of the requirements, whereas women tend to apply for jobs only when they can check off 100% of them. Whether it’s low self-esteem, perfectionism or that we’ve been better socialized to follow the rules, women should apply for those positions anyway.

  • As parents and teachers, we need to stop dumbing down the options in our daughters’ futures. Studies by Psychological Science reveal that “parents may be...unintentionally contributing to a gender gap in children’s scientific literacy well before children encounter formal science instruction in grade school.” For example, research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) shows that parents believe that their sons are inherently more intelligent than their daughters. Parents also Google “Is my son gifted” twice as much as “Is my daughter gifted” even though more girls (8.1%) than boys (7.4%) have been in gifted programs at school since 1976.

But whatever we do, we can’t let these remarkable and pioneering women in tech disappear from the history books.

* The Grace Hopper Conference was inspired by none other than Admiral Grace Murray Hopper and is the biggest tech conference for women in computing in the world. This conference “brings together the community of women technologists, the best minds in computing and increased visibility for the contributions of women to computing” and you can register for it right here.