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The History of Women in Computing

Public- and private-sector initiatives aim to boost the number of women in computer science.

By University Alliance
The History of Women in Computing

For almost two centuries, women have been pioneers in the origins and development of computing. Although they are underrepresented in computer science and other technology-related professions today, women continue to play a vital role in those fields and numerous initiatives have been launched to boost their participation.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who was born in 1815 to Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke, is widely considered to be the founder of scientific computing. Raised on math and science by a mother who didn’t want her daughter to become a poet like her famous father, Ada was just 17 when she befriended Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating machine called the Difference Engine. 

Babbage later asked his friend, who was also known as Ada Lovelace, to translate a French text relating to his new invention, the Analytical Engine. She not only translated it; she also appended notes sketching out several early “computer programs” and a vision for the general-purpose computer and its future uses.

Her notes on the Analytical Engine remained mostly unknown until they inspired Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers 100 years later.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense named its new programming language Ada in honor of Lovelace’s contributions to the field. Since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been held annually around the world to honor the work of women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The “Computers”

A century after Ada Lovelace wrote her notes, female mathematicians were called to do computing before and during World War II. While it was common for women in the 1930s to study mathematics, they would typically go on to teach. While the world was at war, however, women were put to work as “computers,” responsible for hand-solving equations and programming for what were then considered computer-type machines.

Grace Hopper

Among these pioneers was a group of six women who were responsible for programming the U.S. Army’s Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic, programmable and general-purpose computer.

Following the war, computing was so popular among women that it was featured in a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan magazine titled The Computer Girls. The article quoted computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper as saying that programming is “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. … Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Hopper, who retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of rear admiral, played an important role in the development of programming languages from the 1930s to the 1980s. Among her notable achievements was her work developing computer languages written in English, rather than mathematical notation, such as COBOL, or Common Business Oriented Language, which is still used today.

The Anita Borg Institute, which helps women advance their careers in technology fields, hosts an annual celebration and conference that’s described as the largest gathering in the world of female technologists and is named in honor of Grace Hopper.

A Downward Shift

Despite the contributions of Hopper and other trailblazers, recent decades have seen a steep decline in the representation of women in the field of computer science.

Women in Computing

In the early 1980s, females accounted for about 37% of the U.S. college students who received bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2010, that had fallen below 18%, even as the overall percentage of female college students increased steadily to 57%.

How did this happen? Researchers and historians have pinpointed a variety of factors in explaining the downward shift in female representation in computer science.

Initially, women often assumed the role of “computers” because men were interested in hardware, thinking it more difficult than software. According to an article published by Stanford University, when men discovered that software was challenging and complex, they started gaining positions in programming and the field became more prestigious.

The perception of computing changed and it was no longer viewed as a simple, menial task. Men began forming professional associations and developing qualifying tests, which often were restricted to members of fraternities and other all-male societies.

The drop in female representation also coincided with the advent of personal computers, which were frequently marketed as “toys for boys.” This helped give rise to the stereotype of the male computer geek in the media. In the following decades, such generalizations were reinforced by the success of programmers-turned-entrepreneurs like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the emergence of the techie/brogrammer (bro + programmer).

This stereotype of a male-oriented, machinery-focused culture has a significant impact on dissuading women from entering the computer science field, according to a University of Washington study published in February 2015.

The researchers also cited discouragement from parents and teachers, and girls underestimating their performance in these fields as contributing to the dearth of girls and women in computer science.

However, when such stereotypes are challenged by broadening the representation of people who work in these fields, the level of interest among women increases significantly, the study noted.

The Future of Women in Computing

Wide-ranging efforts have been launched to boost the number of women in computer science, including by professional organizations, government agencies, private corporations, K-12 schools and universities.

According to The White House, computer science-related fields will account for more than half of all jobs in the STEM professions by 2020. But the number of new computer science grads will significantly lag the number of jobs created in the coming years.

“Improving the participation and success of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science is critical,” The White House noted in December 2014.

Today, girls and young women interested in computer science can turn to new role models for inspiration. Tech leaders such as Yahoo President Marissa Mayer, Anita Borg Institute CEO Telle Whitney and IBM Chairman Virginia “Ginni” Rometty all have degrees in Computer Science, and are helping reverse stereotypes and increase the presence of women in the profession.

Category: Information Technology