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Women in Tech – Smashing Myths and Prejudice

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By: rcubed

October 5, 2016

What if I were to tell you that during the stone age of computing (1940s) women dominated the programming profession? You might have a difficult time believing me if you were to look around and observe the gender imbalance of women in tech today, but during WWII, it was women that “manned” the frontlines in the computer programming arms race.The first electronic computer was named ENIAC. It was a project begun during WWII and it literally filled an entire room. The mission was to build a “super” computer that could rapidly process numerous calculations to guide the trajectories of military ordinance. ENIAC was a massive construction of vacuum tubes, wires, and metal. A single “bit” of the ENIAC was the size of a toaster. The amount of electrical power it guzzled was enormous.Designing and assembling such a behemoth was no place for a delicate little woman! That formidable task was assigned to men. It was believed at the time that mechanical and electronic hardware construction was the purview of men and things dealing with low-level programming were akin to clerical work; something best turned over to the ladies.It was a time before girls were discouraged from studying math, though most women with mathematics degrees went on to become math teachers. There was little else in the way of opportunity for them to apply their skills and education. The ENIAC project provided a new avenue for women with math training.Programming ENIAC didn’t resemble what the profession has become today. Back then, programming instructions were all at the machine level, which meant numerical coding by hand. It would be several years later before the first compiler was developed—by a woman no less. No wonder the boys left such tedious work to the ladies! What the women quickly came to understand was that the job required far more than mindless data entry.The women on the ENIAC project embraced the art and creativity behind crafting the logic that powered and ultimately brought to life the lumbering hunk of metal and wires the men had so proudly constructed. They also introduced some innovations into this ancestor of today’s computer such as a STOP command to override human error. It took some convincing, but even the men came to realize the wisdom of implementing such an instruction!Perhaps the most famous and influential woman programmer from this era, and of all time, is the late Grace Hopper. She earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934 from Yale and went to work teaching mathematics at Vassar—an all women college at the time. At the onset of WWII, she enlisted in the Navy Reserve to train at their midshipmen school. Upon graduation, she went to work as a programmer for the Mark I computer—another early computer that followed on the heels of ENIAC.Grace Hopper would eventually realize the need to program computers in a language resembling the English language. This led Grace to develop the first compiler and eventually the first portable programming language known as COBOL. The ability to write programs that were no longer dependent on a specific hardware platform was a major innovation that paved the way forward for modern programming languages. Grace Hopper’s contribution to the world of computing was enormous. She would continue working in a technology capacity for the Navy until her death at the age of 85, having attained the rank of rear admiral.The dawn of the personal computing revolution turned the tide towards the male-dominated culture that continues in the field today. Boy wonders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, became the industry's early rock stars. Even today, terms like “programming rock star” and “coding beast” are common. Such terms usually aren’t associated with females. Women obtain 57% of the bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. but fewer than 18% of those degrees are in computer science.  The unfortunate reality is that the field of computing and technology in general, is woefully lacking in women. Things currently look bleak for women in IT, but there are some bright spots beginning to shine through.There is growing awareness of the under-representation of women in the tech fields and pressure has begun mounting on companies and HR departments to more actively recruit and hire women into technical positions. Conversely, the supply of qualified female applicants is low. Efforts to fill the educational pipeline with more females are underway. Educators realize that instilling an interest in girls in the STEM fields must start early.Destructive stereotypes such as reinforcing the notion in young girls that they are not good in math because of their gender must be confronted head on. Females currently graduate from college at a higher rate than males. As a result, a larger proportion of the degrees these young women earn must begin shifting towards STEM degrees. Otherwise, our economy could face increasing pressure due to a severe shortage of qualified graduates to fill an overwhelming number of open technology positions.The good news for women coming out of college with a degree in a technical discipline is they are finding themselves in ever more demand. Granted, bias and even outright discrimination continues to exist in hiring practices, but such ignorance will eventually erode as it did during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As a society we have no choice.It’s imperative that girls and women do their part to stay the course and not be afraid to take up an interest in math, science, and technology. was founded upon the mission of providing free online technical training to anyone wanting to advance their career, with a special focus on women and minorities. The very future of our society and economy depends on getting more trained professionals into the technology fields. A future of more women in tech requires a new generation of Grace Hoppers!
The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, "Try it." And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances. –Grace Hopper
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