Great changes are happening inside the tech industry, as more and more women enter a playing field that’s been under a lot of scrutiny these past years for its male-centric workforce. No longer just a man’s sport, women are stepping up to the plate and realizing that, not only do they belong in the tech game, they can be the heavy hitters.
No great movement happens in a vacuum and it’s just as true for women in tech as everywhere else. While celebrating the advances by today’s leaders and trailblazers, it’s worth looking back at the women in tech who brought us to this point.
Most historical accounts start with Ada Lovelace, credited as the world’s first computer programmer. There is even a day named for her and every October 12th, techies around the world celebrate the role women have played in tech. Ada may be the best known, but she is not by a longshot the only woman who devoted her smarts and career to early technological gains.
Jean Jennings Bartik broke into the then new field of computer science when she got a job working on the ENIAC for the U.S. Ballistics Research Lab in the 1940s. A brilliant mathematician, she had been working on rocket and cannon trajectories calculations when a job was offered on the new machine. The concept there could be a device that might make hand calculations obsolete was all she needed to know and she quickly applied for the position. She and five other female mathematicians went on to create programs for the world’s first general-purpose computer.
Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who died in 1992, was known by many for her television appearances, including on the David Letterman Show. The women who had worked on the ENIAC joined up with Grace, a tenured math professor who was also a member of the Navy Reserve during the war. They all worked together on the UNIVAC, one of the first major commercial computers, developing the programming language COBOL, which allowed programmers to use words instead of numbers. The innovation was a huge breakthrough because it marked the point where the software became more important than the hardware, as the software could now travel from one machine to a different machine.
Shortly after this time, the number of women majoring in computer science began to dramatically decline, a fact commonly attributed to the sense the job was not seen as important, particularly to men. When Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came on the scene with their PC’s, computer science degrees suddenly rose in popularity and the common wisdom became that boys who liked monkeying around with hardware were better suited to the field than girls who liked math. Even though their numbers shrank, women in tech still made important strides during the “lean years” leading up to today.
In 1994, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, along with her husband, Murray Turoff, wrote the influential book The Network Nation, which is credited with defining the electronic frontier of online conferencing systems. At a time when she was primarily known for her work in the areas of operating systems and cache performance analysis, Anita Borg in 1995 founded Systers, an electronic mailing list for women working in computer science. Prior to the list’s creation the relatively few women in the tech industry at that time were physically isolated from each other and Systers became a major unifier and a supportive source of information. Borg’s list continues to be a major force when it comes to increasing the number of women in computer science.
The first decade of the 21st century brought us Stephanie Perrin, an international expert in privacy and data protection, as well as the social impact of technology; Beth Givens, who founded the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and has written books on how individuals can protect their online privacy; Mitchell Baker, the Chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation, which promotes innovation and opportunity through its open-source project; and Limor “Ladyada” Fried, a pioneer in the field of open-source software as well as hardware hacking. Her company, Adafruit, sells do-it-yourself kits to consumers to helps them make tech-related gadgets.
This decade’s inspiring team includes women like Selina Tobaccowala of Survey Monkey, Julia Hartz of Eventbrite and Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFare. These women have all built their successes in no small part upon their predecessors’ earlier achievements and, while the current numbers may make prospects appear dim, there is actually much to be optimistic about when it comes to the future of women in tech. As more and more women enter the field (and receive recognition for their work), and as girls and young women begin to see how exciting and rewarding a life it can be, there’s no reason not to believe that the best, indeed, is yet to come.