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How women tech pioneers have shaped the modern world

This International Women’s Day, we’re taking a look at some of the women tech pioneers who shaped the modern world.

Women have a long history of pioneering in science, technology, engineering and maths. As author Margot Lee Shetterly writes, "There was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians." But their significant contributions are at risk of being forgotten. Their stories of hardship, perseverance and determination are important, not only because they deserve recognition for their work, but because they are crucial for providing the role models to inspire the next generation of women in tech. Role models help us visualize a path to success, they motivate us and provide us with the confidence that our dreams are possible—especially when those people look like you.

Portrait of Katherine Johnson smiling at work

Katherine Johnson at NASA; NASA restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t alway this way

The scarcity of women in the tech industry is well documented, but it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, Ada Lovelace is considered by some to be the world’s first computer programmer. A friend of Charles Babbage, Lovelace was especially interested in his work on the Analytical Engine. After translating an article on the machine, Lovelace added her own notes, detailing its potential to go beyond complex mathematical calculations and developing an algorithm to compute Bernoulli numbers. 

A century later, Hedy Lamarr, a star of the silver screen, co-invented a device that paved the way for many of the technologies we use today. Widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, Lamarr was more than just a talented actress. During the Second World War she, and her composer friend George Antheil, created a frequency hopping device that could block enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals. Though the U.S. Navy initially rejected their device, calling it too cumbersome, later adaptations were used in the Cold War. The legacy of their innovation lives on today. Many of the technologies that are integral to our lives in the 21st century, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and mobile telecommunications, all use the frequency-hopping method of transmitting radio signals. Lamarr’s life shows us that there is more than one way to be a woman—women can be intelligent and glamorous, creative and scientific.

Portrait of Hedy Lamarr looking confident and relaxed

Hedy Lamarr; MGM / Clarence Bull, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lamarr was not the only woman who made a significant contribution to technology during World War II. Grace Hopper, who was studying for her doctorate in mathematics at Yale, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve after the United States’ entry into the war. Though she was initially rejected from the Navy due to her small stature and older age, she was eventually posted at the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University. There she worked on top-secret calculations that computed rocket trajectories, created range tables for new anti-aircraft guns, and calibrated minesweepers. Hopper’s contributions to computing continued long after the war. She went on to lead the team that created the first compiler software, which translated mathematical code into machine readable binary code, an invention that is used to make most computer programs today.

Photo of Grace Hopper demonstrating an electronic console while other colleagues take notes

Grace Hopper; Unknown (Smithsonian Institution), CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The prevalence of women in computer programming continued after the war and, in the 1960s, more than 1 in 4 computer programmers were women in the USA. Aided by recruiting campaigns from companies like IBM, Cosmopolitan declared "this is the age of the Computer Girls'' in 1967. In the 1960s, computing was women’s work.

Despite the discrimination against them, black women made significant contributions to tech innovation in this period. Katherine Johnson was one of the first black women to work at NASA, and in 1962 her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. Though she received little credit for her work during her early years at NASA—women were not allowed to add their names to reports they had written or contributed to—she managed to forge a long and successful career. During her 33 years at NASA, she worked on the Space Shuttle and Landsat satellite, and in 1969 helped to calculate the Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon. Dr. Gladys West, a mathematician who grew up on a Virginia farm during segregation, laid the foundations for the technology that later became GPS. While working at the Dahlgren Navy Base in Virginia, she programmed an IBM 7030 Stretch computer to provide calculations for an accurate geodetic Earth model. These models became the building block for the technology we use today to track our runs, check where our delivery courier is, and navigate unfamiliar roads.

“Boys toys” and the rise of men in tech

By the 1980s and the advent of personal computers, the number of women working in computing began to dwindle. Computing was no longer seen as clerical work for women and was instead viewed as highly skilled, high status work for men. Early personal computers were marketed towards men and boys, who used them to play shooting and Pong games. Many of the women who took computing programs at university found themselves at a disadvantage compared to their male peers, who had grown up playing computer games. Although there were still some notable women working in the industry—including Sophie Wilson, the brains behind the architecture of the Acorn Micro-Computer—perceptions of computer programming shifted. This trend has largely continued and in 2020, only 8% of programmers were women.

Cartoon bearded naval captain brandishing a gun and a rapier on the cover of a computer game magazine in 1984

Computer Gaming World, Jun ‘84 Vol 3; Golden Empire Publications, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, Ruchi Sanghvi became the first female engineer at Facebook. During her time there, she helped build some of the site’s most distinctive features, including News Feed, Platform—which allows third parties to build apps on Facebook, and Connect—which enables users to link their profiles across sites. After leaving Facebook, Sanghvi went on to co-found Cove, a collaboration and file sharing platform that was later acquired by Dropbox. Despite her successes in the tech world, Sanghvi has pointed out that it is difficult for women to break into the “boy’s club”. As one of only five women in her university class and the first and only female engineer at Facebook for a time, she is adamant about the need for more female role models in computer science and other technology-related fields.

Forging the future

Despite being underrepresented and overlooked, women continue to invent and innovate in the tech world. Chieko Asakawa, who lost her sight at 14, holds the patent for the Home Page Reader (HPR), a web browser that reads the screen aloud, allowing users to navigate through pages on the Internet. Her digital Braille work has helped to bring the world’s information to more people. Since 2017 Asakawa has led a research project that’s working to create a system, known as NavCog, to help visually impaired people to navigate indoors.

Whitney Wolfe Herd recently became the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, seven years after launching the dating app Bumble—an app made for women, by women. Her path to success was not without setbacks. After co-founding Tinder in 2012, she left two years later after filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company, alleging that she was called derogatory names and stripped of her co-founder title because she was a woman. As Wolfe Herd celebrated Bumble going public, with her baby on her hip, she demonstrated what women can achieve when they make the first move.

These are just a few of the many women who’ve contributed to advances in technology over the years. Though often underestimated by their contemporaries and disregarded by history, these women can inspire and encourage the next generation of women in tech. 

This International Women’s Day, take the time to learn more about some of the incredible women who have paved the way for some of our most used technologies and remember to share their stories. You never know who you might inspire and what they might invent!

Why not start with this TED talk about the hidden history of women in tech?

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