In the development community, diversity has become a buzzword; an initiative to be boldly undertaken. Here at Mediacurrent our team is about 25% women. We’re developers and project managers, digital strategists and designers, account supervisors and marketing professionals. Still, at some of the largest companies in the country, the number of women is dreadfully low. At Google only 17% of the computer professionals are women. At Facebook and Twitter, it’s less than 15%. There is no question that we are underrepresented in our industry, even as we make up more than half of the user base for our own products.
A study published in the journal Science this January found that “girls as young as 6 are less likely to consider women ‘really, really smart,’ childhood’s version of brilliance.” It’s also the age at which “girls begin to avoid activities said to be for children who are ‘really, really smart.’” Which, they believe, goes a long way to explaining why so few women go into STEM fields later in life.
Technology is considered a boys club, too technical for women, too hard. But that’s backward. Women were the first coders, the first creators of the algorithms and techniques we rely on every day as developers and engineers.
The Unsung History of Women in Tech
Ada Lovelace, in 1842, wrote the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. This simple set of instructions, provided by holes in punchcards to Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, was the first computer ‘program.’ And women have been creating and revolutionizing the way we code ever since.
A little more than 100 years after Ada’s famous notes were published, Jean Jennings Bartik and her team of 6 women programmed the ENIAC, the first all-electronic, digital computer. The programming contained the first instances of subroutines, nesting and error control.
On its introduction to the public in 1946, ENIAC generated headlines across the country, but the men who built the machine were given all the credit. Bartik and her team were never mentioned.
Grace Hopper, “Grandma Cobol”, lead the team that created the first compiler. The A-0 system was the first to translate symbolic code into machine language. Not long after, the first widely used compiler, A-2, was released paving the way for the development of programming languages. Among these Hooper’s most famous contribution, COBOL. Hooper originated the idea that programs could be written in English. She saw that the “words” were simply another kind of symbol that the compiler could recognize and convert into machine code, setting the stage for the all the high-level programming languages we use today.
It was a woman that took Americans to the moon, too. Margaret Hamilton, Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, was the lead developer of in-flight software for the Apollo and Skylab programs in the late 1960s. Her addition of error recognition and display to the Apollo lander software allowed decisions to be made in real time, saving the landing from an unnecessary mission abort and has been called "the foundation for ultra-reliable software design." She founded Hamilton Technologies in the late 1980s, based on her paradigm ‘Development Before The Fact,’ a system that led to many of the systems design and software development techniques still used today.
More recently, but still 150 years after Ada’s first program, Barbara Liskov became one of the first women in the US to receive a Ph.D. in computer science. In 2004, she became the second, and last, woman awarded a John von Neumann Medal for "fundamental contributions to programming languages, programming methodology, and distributed systems." And in 2009 she was awarded the Turing Award for her work in the design of programming languages and software methodology that led to the development of object-oriented programming.
Women have a rich history in computer programming that often goes ignored. They slip, unknown and uncelebrated, into the background of great technological innovation. As Google VP Megan Smith puts it, “there is a lack of exposure to the work that technical women do.”
The Future of Women in Tech
But ours is an industry built to change, based on agility and upheaval. A more diverse industry can only lead to better code and more innovative and effective products. Leslie Miley told the podcast Reply All “If you don’t have people of diverse backgrounds building your product, it will become very, very narrowly focused.”
Ellen Ullman, a writer and herself a coder, believes that the best way to get more women involved in coding is to teach them what it means to think like a programmer. She told The New Republic “They will understand that programs are written by people with particular values … and, since programs are human products, the values inherent in code can be changed.”
Groups like Girls Who Code, Girl Develop It, and Code Like a Girl are doing just that. Their mission is to provide a place for young girls to learn to code, with the express goal of closing the gender gap in the tech industry. And they have been successful, partnering with companies like Amazon, Adobe, Facebook, Salesforce and Yahoo to employ their graduates.
And this year’s DrupalCon is “consciously working to increase the diversity of the speakers who take to the stage at DrupalCon to ensure that they better represent the Drupal community. ” Almost ⅓ of the speakers at the Baltimore Conference are identified as diverse.
Women created the technologies that made this industry a force for changing the world, and we belong here. While it is still true that less than a quarter of all IT jobs are held by women, the industry is changing. The jobs may still be held mostly by young white men, but the technology innovation itself is not, and has never been, a boys club.