‘Women in IT’ is back in the news. Girl Scouts in Los Angeles can now work towards a new merit badge in video game development. They’re the first Girl Scout (Guide) chapter to introduce this, developed in conjunction with WIGI (Women in Games International), and they’re hoping that the enthusiasm will spread. WIGI’s goal is to get young girls interested in technology and science and spread the word that girls too can have a future in video games – along with all other tech fields. Another organization that works hard to show girls that technology is just as much fun for them as for boys is Girls Who Code. Last fall Girls Who Code ran an 8-week program in which participating girls got the amazing chance to demonstrate their apps at the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan, and share what they had learned and accomplished. What an experience.
Why is this important? Because the IT (aka ICT) field needs more women. It needs more men, too, but with so few women entering the field our society risks having virtually all the technology that dominates our world designed with no input from a female perspective. Keep in mind that we use technology in health care, education, e-learning, on-line shopping, managing social work case files, eBooks, renewing our car registrations, paying our bills, voting, and apps for nearly everything under the sun. Technology underlies nearly everything these days. We need the female voice.
For the past few decades, nearly every jurisdiction in the western world has been trying to increase the percentage of young women entering our field. At my own university, for example, our latest effort is the introduction this summer of our first girls-only computer camp, CyberGirlz. This camp has an interesting twist, with a concentration on Internet security. The girls will write small programs, design security measures for Facebook pages and smart phones, and even have ‘break passwords’ competitions. We keep looking for the key to capturing the imagination of young women, convincing them that there is plenty of scope for creative and rewarding careers in technology and science.
It wasn’t always like this. In the “early days”, prior to home computers and a complete change in the public perception of what a career in computing means, most computer science programs were at least 40% female, as opposed to these days, where in most places 15% is a good number. And yet, some of the most colourful early pioneers in computing were women.
Take Ada, Countess of Lovelace, usually referred to as Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815, she only lived to be 36, one year older than Mozart, and yet she had a significant impact on the very beginnings of computing. It’s difficult to grasp that a woman in the early 1800s in Britain – and a woman with a very high social standing at that – would be a working mathematician, but she was. Her story is a fascinating one. She was the only legitimate child of the famous poet Lord Byron. Her mother, who ended up not being too pleased with Lord Byron once he became her former husband, had her daughter study math to keep her mind engaged so that she would avoid the mental illness to which she was convinced Lord Byron had succumbed. I had never thought of using that as a reason to convince young people to stick with their math studies, but maybe I should. At any rate, although Ada married very well – hence the Countess of Lovelace – and had three children, plus more than one grand country estate, she maintained her serious study of mathematics. At one time her tutor was Augustus De Morgan of the famous De Morgan Laws, for those of you who studied logic. Her claim to fame for computer scientists is that she worked with Charles Babbage, who designed the first computer (actually called the difference engine and then the analytical engine – and never built). She is considered to be the world’s first programmer, having written detailed notes of how Babbage’s engine could be programmed to process mathematical problems. Legend has it that Ada worked for Babbage to pay for a gambling habit; although her husband was wealthy, she didn’t want him to know she had these debts. Her contributions have been honoured in many ways, including the programming language Ada, introduced in 1980.
Another extraordinary woman and computer pioneer was Grace Hopper (1906-1992), who was involved with computing from the early 1940s. She was a young professor of mathematics at Vassar College when the U.S. entered World War II and she requested a leave to serve in the Navy. And the rest, as they say, was history. Her abilities were recognized immediately; she became an integral part of the Bureau of Ships Computation Project, situated at Harvard University, serving on the early Mark I computer programming staff. She was credited with bringing forward the concept of a compiler independent of machine language, and was intimately involved in most of the early advances in computing, including new languages such as COBOL and setting standards associations that are in use today. She is also credited with the introduction of the term “debug”, referring to the removal of a moth in the bank of transistor tubes of the computer. Grace Hopper stayed involved with computing until her death at the age of 85.
I was fortunate in having had the privilege of seeing Grace Hopper speak at a conference in Halifax in the early 1980s. She was a tiny woman with a sharp wit and an engaging manner, and always in her naval uniform, which she wore with pride. She could captivate huge audiences with her wonderful way of explaining technology (of the time and the past) with effective props and humorous anecdotes and film clips. One of her teaching techniques at that time was to describe a nanosecond by handing out pieces of old telephone cable in lengths of 30 cm (12”) to everyone in her audience, and then explain that this is the distance that light travels in one nanosecond. I wonder where my nanosecond cable went?!
Many impressive, successful women have followed in the footsteps of these computer pioneers. Some are leading major tech companies and universities right now. One of my favourite examples is Maria Klawe, who was lured away from Canada to the U.S., first to Princeton and now to Harvey Mudd College as its president. She is a remarkable role model for women; check her out. But … we need more … at all levels! Let’s hope that enthusiasm for this new Girl Scout merit badge spreads and marks the beginning of a flood of young women into the IT industry!!!
Photo credits: Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, en.wikipedia.org