Kicking Off Women's History Month: Women in IT
What do a movie star, nun, rocket scientist, and Countess have in common? In addition to all being women, each one played a critical role in revolutionizing technology as we know it while paving the way for the male and female leaders in tech today.
As we kick off Women’s History Month, we want to highlight four women who helped advance technology while shedding light on the areas where further progress can be made for current and future generations of women in tech.
Although she was the daughter of romantic poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was entranced by numbers and mathematics rather than words from a young age. This passion was fueled by her friendship with Cambridge mathematics professor Charles Babbage, whom she corresponded with for many years. After Babbage designed the first general-purpose computer, known as the Analytical Engine, he gave a lecture which Lovelace translated to English; but her version came with a few additions.
Once she added in her own notes and ideas to the lecture, Lovelace tripled the size of the original transcript, which was later published in 1843. The most notable addition was her suggestion to add a data input designed to program the computer to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which led to her becoming the world’s first computer programmer. But she didn’t stop there. She continued to be a visionary in the tech space, sharing her concept of numbers serving a greater purpose in computing. It was her belief the machine could manipulate not only the numbers it was given, but also the data it produced to create music, symbols, and graphics, all of which became reality close to 100 years later.
We’re all familiar with the words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as well as who uttered them on the history-making Apollo 11 lunar landing, but people may be less familiar with the one who helped make space exploration possible.
Annie Easley applied for a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now known as NASA) as a "computer" and became one of four black employees among her 2,500 other colleagues. She later transitioned to work as a mathematician and computer engineer while obtaining a degree and completing specialization courses offered by NASA. Throughout her 34-year career, she developed code used to analyze alternative power technologies, identified energy conversion systems, and worked on the high-energy rocket stage which served as the foundation for future shuttle, satellite, and military launches. In addition, she served as a trailblazer for racial and gender diversity in STEM and continued to break down barriers as an equal employment opportunity counselor.
While fleeing Austria to the United States, Hedy Lamarr found herself in the presence of Louis B. Mayer, the former head of MGM studios. With beauty, charm, and astounding intelligence on her side, she signed a contract and became a Hollywood film star. Her wit and on-screen talent led her to run in the same circles as other well-known Americans, including former president John F. Kennedy and aviator Howard Hughes. But what does this have to do with technology?
Hughes saw Lamarr’s bright mind and gave her equipment to conduct experiments in her movie trailer during inbetween takes. With tools in hand, and World War II looming in the distance, Lamarr began innovating. It was during discussions over how to combat the axis powers that she, along with composer George Antheil, came up with the idea of a new communication system to prevent torpedoes from being detected by the enemy. Her system utilized the concept of frequency hopping across radio waves to prevent interception, which was a first-of-its-kind creation dating back to the 1940’s. Today, her frequency hopping experiments became the basis of WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technology we’ve all come to know and love.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller
When considering who might have been the first female Computer Science PhD recipient, few people probably think of a nun claiming the title, but Sister Mary Kenneth Keller earned the achievement before anyone else. And her accomplishments don’t stop there.
After taking her vows and dedicating her life to religious service in 1940, Sister Keller studied at DePaul University where she received her B.S. in math as well as an M.S. in math and physics. Several years later, she began work in the computer science center at Dartmouth College, which up until that time had only allowed men. During her brief time at the college, she played a critical role in the development of the Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, also known as the BASIC programming language. Prior to BASIC, only mathematicians and programmers were able to learn the language needed to write software, but with Sister Keller’s contributions, software development became accessible by the masses, changing technology forever. Once her work at Dartmouth concluded, she continued her studies at the University of Madison-Wisconsin where she continued her trailblazing efforts and became the first woman to receive a PhD in Computer Science.
Despite the impact women have made on the advancement of technology in the last 200 years, there’s still a significant gender gap in today’s workforce. In 2021, only 25% of the total computer-science workforce was made up of women. The numbers become even more shocking when the focus is narrowed to women of color with 3% of computing-related jobs held by Black women, 6% held by Asian women and 2% held by Hispanic women.
We can’t eliminate every obstacle a woman might encounter on her journey to becoming a respected technology professional, we can do our best to continue breaking down barriers and making sure women have their seat at the table.
If you’re a woman interested in tech, there are a growing number of resources available to you such as CyberJutsu, Black Girls Code, Change Catalyst, Girls in Tech, and many others that we will explore in a later blog this month. In addition, you can start your tech training journey for free with an INE Starter Pass, giving you instant access to hundreds of hours of Cyber Security, Cloud, Networking, and Data Science course material.
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