It is often said that technology is a male-dominated field. But, in fact, women have laid significant foundations for the current shape of technology. They made discoveries that still influence the IT world, and they contributed to creating numerous programming languages. They have played a vital role in the field of computer science by developing some of the most important components of modern IT.
We chose the profiles of 15 women whose achievements up to this day have a significant impact on the development of the industry over the years. Among the most distinguished women in the history of technology undoubtedly are:
1. Ada Lovelace 1815-1852
She was born in London and was the daughter of the poet Lord George Byron. Her mother cared for her education – she wanted to be taught exact sciences and mathematics, for which little Ada was passionate from an early age. She is considered a pioneer in programming and the world’s first computer programmer.
Lovelace developed a way for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine to perform calculations. This machine enabled the mechanisation of mathematical operations and therefore became a significant stage in the evolution of computers.
Lovelace created an algorithm soon recognised as the world’s first computer program to be named after her. Every year, the second Tuesday in October is celebrated as World Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate women’s achievements in STEM careers.
2. Edith Clarke 1883-1959
She was the first-ever female electrical engineer in the world. She was born in a family of nine. Orphaned at the age of 12, she used her inheritance to finance her college education, where she studied mathematics and astronomy. She then taught maths and physics at a school in San Francisco and Marshall College.
She worked as the manager of the female computer team at AT&T. At the same time, she studied electrical engineering at Columbia University. She was the first woman to obtain a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At General Electric, Clarke created and patented The Clarke Calculator – a graphical device solving, among others, hyperbolic functions ten times faster than other devices. It had been used to transmit electricity through transmission lines. She was the first woman to deliver a talk at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the first female engineer to become a member and the first female professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas.
3. Grace Hopper 1906-1992
She was born in New York and attended Yale University. She was not only a scientist – she also served in the US Navy. Grace became one of the first programmers of the Mark 1 mechatronic calculator, used during World War II – the progenitor of today’s computers. Military career paid off with the rank of Rear Admiral (1980s).
Hopper’s IT career is just as impressive. Enough to mention that she was part of the team that created the UNIVAC I computer (the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer) and she implemented a linker for programs written for this machine.
She was also involved in developing programming languages such as FLOW-MATIC, CODASYL and above all COBOL – machine-independent languages, which paved the way for one of the first high-level programming languages COBOL.D in mathematics. As part of Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp, Hopper designed a compiler that translated programmer’s instructions into computer codes.
She was the first to introduce the term “bug” for errors in code. In addition, she created a 500-page textbook in which she described the basic principles of computer machines. She has received several awards, one of which was presented by Barack Obama in 2016 – the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
4. Mary Kenneth Keller 1913-1985
She was a pioneer in computer science and was the first woman in the US in history to receive a PhD in this field (1965). Earlier, she obtained a master’s degree in physics and mathematics. She was also a Roman Catholic religious sister.
After graduating from DePaul University, she worked at the National Science Foundation (at that time a male-only school). She joined forces with two other scientists to develop the BASIC computer programming language, which made using computers available not only to scientists.
After her PhD, she founded the Computer Science Department at Clarke College to promote computer education. She also developed such a faculty at a Catholic college for women called Clarke College, advocating women in this field. Clarke University has established the Mary Keller IT Scholarship in recognition of her merits.
5. Jean Sammet 1928-2017
She was, besides Grace Hopper, the woman who contributed to the development of the COBOL language. She openly opposed the calling of Hopper the “mother of COBOL” and thus the marginalisation of other people’s participation in this project. In 1961, Sammet joined IBM, where she dealt with, among other things, developing the FORMAC language based on FORTRAN.
She is also known for writing the book Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals (1969), which describes the history of programming languages, classifying about 120 of them and introduces basic concepts related to the field. For this reason, Sammet is sometimes referred to as a historian of programming languages.
6. ENIAC Women
In the years 1942–1945, seven women authored the code for the first ENIAC digital computer, which, although did not resemble modern devices (24 m long, 2.5 m high, 30 tons of switches for entering number plates), at that time it became the first electronic computer in the world. It was programmed by:
- Betty Jean Jennings Bartik
- Kathleen McNulty
- Mauchly Antonelli
- Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum
- Frances Bilas Spence
- Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer
- Frances Snyder Holberton
They did the job as part of a secret World War II project by the US Army. At that time, there were no programming languages, compilers, or tutorials, and designing was based on logical diagrams. Their efforts resulted in a computer that performs complex calculations in seconds. What they did not know was that their code started the era of software development.
Although the project was successful, the characters of ENIAC did not receive the recognition they deserved for a long time. It was not until 1997 that they were inducted into the Hall of Fame Women in Technology International (WITI), and in 2014 Walter Isaacson, in his book Innovators, compared the ENIAC Seven with figures such as Steve Jobs and Nikola Tesla. There was also a documentary entitled Project Eniac Programmers showing the methodology behind these women’s achievements.
7. Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler 1931-
She was born in West Virginia. She completed her BA studies at West Liberty State College. While working on a PhD in biochemistry, she discovered her passion for compiling data. She decided to interrupt her PhD to become director of the network information systems centre at the Stanford research institute (1972–1989).
Feinler’s achievements in the field of technology (under the Stanford research institute) – contributed significantly to the development of the domain name system and the introduction of the domain name protocol. She made the Internet more than just a set of IP addresses – we owe her the dot com, dot nets and dot govs we use every day.
8. Margaret Hamilton 1936-
She is an American programmer, systems engineer and the founder of two technology companies, best known for designing systems for NASA. Hamilton was born in Paola, Indiana. She studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Michigan. The woman was a director of software engineering at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed the onboard aviation software to support Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo missions.
Hamilton developed weather forecast software on LGP-30 and PDP-1 computers. From 1961 to 1963, she worked on the SAGE project at Lincoln Lab, part of the development team that wrote software for the first AN / FSQ-7 (XD-1) computer designed to detect enemy air forces. In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama to work on NASA’s Apollo Moon missions.
9. Mary Wilkes 1937-
She was born in Chicago in 1937 and graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 in the philosophy department. In the eighth grade, her geography teacher told her that she would become a computer programmer when she grew up. And that’s how it happened.
In her early career years, she worked with computers such as the IBM 709 and IBM 704 (1959-1960). In 1961, she joined the group working on digital computers and she contributed to developing the LNC TX-2 – she designed and wrote the user manual for the final console design. She is known to help build the first personal computer and was also the first to have her own computer at home.
10. Barbara Liskov 1939-
This American computer scientist is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was one of the first women to get a PhD in computer science in the US and won the most important Turing Award in IT.
Her name is widely known because of the Liskov substitution principle, one of the SOLID rules, which is significant in object-oriented programming. She is also the creator of two programming languages: CLU, which, although it was created in the first half of the 70s, was very innovative in some respects, and Argus – developed a decade later – which was a kind of extension of the CLU mentioned above, aimed at facilitating distributed programming.
11. Adele Goldberg 1945-
She is known for her achievements in the field of Apple technology. Goldberg was born in Ohio, graduated in mathematics from the University of Michigan, then got her PhD in computer science from the University of Chicago in 1973. Working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Goldberg was the only woman in the group to create Smalltalk-80, one of the most influential early programming languages.
The Smalltalk system was presented to Steve Jobs, who implemented a lot of the assumptions of this language in the first Apple products. The importance of the work done by Goldberg and the rest of the team is also evidenced by the fact that many ideas implemented in Smalltalk also became the basis for creating the first graphic environments, including on Macintosh computers.
12. Radia Perlman 1951-
This pioneer of computer programming has over 100 patented ideas to its credit. Born in New Jersey, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied programming in physics classes. She has a degree in mathematics and a PhD in computer science. While pursuing a research career at MIT, she published the book Interconnection in 2000, greatly simplifying network routing and bridging.
Perlman is considered the creator of the Internet, although personally she strongly rejects it, emphasizing that “one person did not invent the Internet.” However, it is a fact that she has developed the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) that is fundamental to how the Internet works. She is also the inventor of TRILL.
13. Susan Kare 1954-
She is an American artist and graphic designer best known for her interface elements and typeface contributions to the first Apple Macintosh in 1983–1986.
Initially, she worked for Microsoft, but her most significant achievements lie in the time of cooperation with Apple. Inspired by the Xerox Graphical User Interface (GUI), Steve Jobs looked for an artist to design Macintosh icons. Using a block of graph paper, Kare designed Mac icons that followed three principles: simple, elegant and understandable.
As part of her work at Apple, Susan also created the Chicago typeface used in the first four generations of the iPod.
14. Carol Shaw 1955-
Shaw is believed to be the first female video game designer. She was born and raised in Palo Alto, California. Initially interested in mathematics, she became more closely associated with the field of electronics.
A graduate of electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, Shaw began her career at Atari Inc. in the late 1970s. There she started designing and programming video games. She has made some of the most popular games for Atari Inc., such as Polo, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe, and River Raid.
15. Parisa Tabriz 1983-
She studied computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but soon became more into computer science. While still a student, she became interested in cybersecurity after her own website was hacked. Tabriz has done extensive research into wireless security and attacks on privacy-invasiv technologies; she co-edited articles on this subject. After graduation, she started working at Google.
Currently, she leads the Internet security department of Google Chrome around the world. In 2012, “Forbes” placed her on the “Top 30 People Under 30 To Watch in the Technology Industry” list.
The influence of women in the IT industry in the world is increasing significantly. This is because women are more and more willing to study engineering, IT and telecommunications, and increasingly occupy higher management positions in this area.
Women’s participation in the area was well researched in the US in 2016. It showed that, they make up 25% among all employees in the IT industry. However, fewer women worked in areas decisive for innovative new technologies, such as software design. For example, 12% of women were network architects, 18% were programmers, 20% were data security analysts, and 13% were hardware engineers. The involvement of women in creating the most innovative solutions in IT science is relatively low. Through the last 30 years, they were the authors of only 2% of patents (“Women in Tech: The Facts”, NCWIT 2016).
In Europe, out of 17 million engineers and scientists, 10 million are men. In comparison to these statistics Poland fares much better – for 1.2 million scientists and engineers, 600,000 it’s women. The percentage of women among all graduates of science, technology and information and communication technologies adds up to 44%. Moreover, it is the highest percentage among OECD countries; the average is 31% (according to OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2017).