International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 every year. Since it falls on Sunday this year, why not celebrate for the entire weekend!
International Women’s Day has a surprisingly long history. The first Women’s Day was organized in New York City in 1909 by that infamous (in the eyes of many Americans) Socialist Party of America. Those evil socialists supported the rights of women decades before most other parties, and before most countries. International Women’s Day has been celebrated in different places since the early 1900s and was adopted by the UN in 1975. It’s a national holiday in some countries, largely ignored in others, and variously recognized both by celebrations of the achievements of women and protests against violence and human rights abuse towards women. There is both much to celebrate and much to protest against. Just this week there was a horrifying article in The Guardian reporting that 9 out of 10 people are found to be biased against women, and that includes in western countries. There shouldn’t still be so much work to do to change this, but we’re up for the challenge. Clearly, vigilance is essential.
Despite this dismaying reality, or maybe because of it, I have chosen to honour International Women’s Day by celebrating women’s successes rather than concentrate on all the painful, continuing struggles. And, as a retired programmer/analyst, computer science prof and dean, who started her career way back in the days of punch cards and mainframes, I’m going to take this opportunity to celebrate the contributions women have made to the remarkably transformational world of IT.
I am proud to say that women have made many important contributions to computing throughout its relatively short history, starting with the notion of programming a computing machine when the concept was just a figment of Charles Babbage’s imagination. Let’s take a look at a few female leaders in IT throughout its history.
Countess Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). Ada Lovelace’s story has been told many times. She was the only legitimate daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron. She became Countess Lovelace through her marriage when her husband became the Earl of Lovelace. Her story is utterly fascinating; you can read all her details here. It includes all kinds of scandals and stories of her gambling addiction! She was a mathematical prodigy and, along with raising 3 children, she became an important collaborator of Charles Babbage, who developed the concept of a computing machine he called the Analytical Engine. Ada Lovelace is credited with having developed an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. She wrote detailed documents explaining the potential of a computing machine beyond number crunching a full 100 years before a working model existed. She is sometimes called the world’s first programmer. And she did all this before meeting a very early death at the age of 36.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992). I was fortunate enough to have seen Grace Hopper give a talk in Halifax in the early 80s. She was riveting, and presented with great humour. She is well known as a computer scientist and U.S. Naval officer. In actual fact, she had a PhD from Yale in mathematics and was a prof at Vassar before joining the Navy Reserve during WW II. She had been refused entry into the Navy because of her age (34), so joined the Navy Reseve and remained in the Reserve throughout her life. Her computing career began in 1944 when she worked on the Harvard Mark project. She was then part of the team that developed the UNIVAC I computer and created the first machine-independent programming language, COBOL. My first programming language back in 1967!
The ENIAC women. During World War II, the new-fangled computing machine, the ENIAC, was used to make complex computations of artillery trajectories. The ENIAC wasn’t a programmable machine the way we’re used to them now; it was programmed by plugging myriad wires into plugboards to allow the calculations to be carried out. Yikes! Because of a shortage of male engineers – they were fighting in the war – the U.S. Army was “forced” to reach out to female mathematicians to handle this challenge. Not surprisingly, the women were every bit up to the challenge. After 6 weeks of training and armed with the wiring diagrams for all the panels of the ENIAC, they were told to “get on with it.” And get on with it they did. Kudos to Betty Jean Jennings, Kathleen McNulty, Ruth Lichterman, Frances Bilas, Marilyn Westcott, and Frances Snyder. A full account of their fascinating work can be found at this link.
Hidden Figures women. If you haven’t seen this movie or read the book, read the book first. It’s amazing. It’s the story of the women mathematicians reluctantly brought in to work on the first NASA project as (human) computers, as they were called then, to do the complex calculations that either couldn’t be handled by the computing machines of the time or needed to be checked and rechecked. I say reluctantly because NASA in the 50s and early 60s expected to restrict the work to men only, but they couldn’t find enough. So they expanded to include white women mathematicians, and when they needed still more people they eventually relented and added (extremely well-)qualified black women mathematicians. They hired them, but this work site was located in Langley, Virginia, where strict segregation was firmly in place, so these women were restricted as to where they could work, eat, and what bathroom they could use (in a separate building from where they worked). This is the story of the women who did all the trajectory calculations for getting into space. Very difficult work and very important to do correctly. Their story – and what they were put through – is inspiring and also very unsettling as far as social history is concerned. A huge debt of gratitude and respect is due to many women mathematicians who worked for NASA as “computers”, represented in the book and movie by the stories of Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), Dorothy Vaughn (1910-2008), and Mary Jackson (1921-2005).
Dr. Beatrice Worsley (1921-72). From Wikipedia: Beatrice Worsley was the first female computer scientist in Canada. She received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Cambridge with Alan Turing and Douglas Hartree as advisers, the first Ph.D granted in what would today be known as computer science. She wrote the first program to run on EDSAC, co-wrote the first compiler for Toronto’s Ferranti Mark 1, wrote numerous papers in computer science, and taught computers and engineering at Queen’s University and the University of Toronto for over 20 years before her untimely death at the age of 50.
Dr. Xia Peisu (1923-2014). Xia Peisu was educated in mathematics and electrical engineering during the turbulent times of the 1940s in China, and completed her PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh in 1950. In the fall of 1952, Xia and two other scientists were recruited to lead the development of China’s first electronic computer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Four years later she became a founding professor of the Institute of Computing Technology of the CAS, where she spent the remainder of her career. After the two other scientists left the project, Xia led the development of China’s first indigenously designed general-purpose electronic computer, Model 107, in 1958. She has been acclaimed as the “Mother of Computer Science in China”. A fuller story of her life and accomplishments can be found in this recent BBC article.
Dr. Maria Klawe (1951- ) Maria Klawe is a Canadian computer scientist (now a dual Canadian-American) who has had and continues to have a successful and impactful career in computing, education, and advocacy for the role of women in the STEM disciplines. With a PhD in mathematics (U of Alberta) and then one started in computer science (U of Toronto), her career has been far-reaching. She has worked as a computer scientist and manager in industry (IBM’s Almaden Research Center); professor, dean of science, and VP of student and academic services at the University of British Columbia; dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton; and, since 2006, the first female president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. She has had a remarkable impact on increasing the percentage of female students and faculty at Harvey Mudd, and works diligently to spread enthusiasm for young women to take up studies in STEM disciplines. She is a role model for many of us.
Dr. Carolyn Watters. Carolyn Watters is another sterling role model for young Canadian women in computer science and STEM disciplines in general. Early in her career she was unable to obtain a tenure-track position at Dalhousie University (Dal) despite holding one of the largest national research grants in their faculty, so she obtained a tenure-track position at a university a few hours’ drive from Halifax and her family of 3 sons and supportive husband (who worked at Dalhousie himself) commuted. She was very well received at her smaller university, but after a few years Dal either had an opening or they saw the light and she became a full-time member of the Faculty of Computer Science at Dalhousie. She remains involved in research in human computer engagement in information spaces, as well as advocating on behalf of women in IT and encouraging entrepreneurial activity for women as well as young men. She served as dean of graduate studies at Dal and was Dal’s Provost and VP Academic from 2010-18. Currently she is on secondment from Dalhousie, serving since February 2019 as the National Research Council (NRC)’s inaugural Chief Digital Research Officer, including oversight of the Digital Technologies Research Centre. Another role model to many, many women in IT in Canada.
Dr. Barbara Wasson. Barbara Wasson continues a family legacy of excellence in computing, following in the footsteps of her father, Dana, who led the beginning of both computing and computer science education in my province of New Brunswick. After obtaining her BSc in CS from UNB in 1982, she completed her graduate work at the University of Saskatchewan, getting in on the ground floor of the new world of networked learning. Barbara has built her professional (and personal!) life in the beautiful country of Norway, although happily with frequent visits to New Brunswick. She is a Professor in the Department of Information Science & Media Studies at the University of Bergin in Norway, where she also serves as Director of the Centre for the Science of Learning and Technology (SLATE). She was one of the founders of Kaleidoscope, a European Network of Excellence on Technology Enhanced Learning, sat on the executive committee, and was leader of its CSCL SIG with over 400 members. She’s often used as an Expert evaluator by the European Commission. Needless to say, we are proud of her New Brunswick beginnings and the many contributions she has made to our profession and to mentoring women in the field in Canada and throughout Europe.
My UNB IT heroes. I last taught CS students at UNB in 2007, so my list of UNB-educated IT heroines will be missing anyone who came along after that. I apologize for anyone I inadvertently miss. But along with the women whose contributions through the decades are described above, others who deserve to be recognized are the many women I have worked with who have contributed and continue to contribute to advancements in our field in their roles as CEOs, management consultants, programmers, programmer/analysts, cybersecurity experts, teachers and professors, project managers, directors and managers, university administrators, government policy advisors, web developers, game designers, network specialists, interface designers, and other specialties. These are the same women who raise children, take care of aging parents, contribute their time to volunteering and fundraising in their communities, serve as community leaders in helping new refugees, the homeless shelter, the foodbank, community kitchen, literacy, other social projects, and with economic development. These are the women who hire other women and men, empower them, and mentor them. These are the women in IT who I am proud to know and call colleagues, former students, and friends.
Representatives of this important group of women in IT worthy of celebration on International Women’s Day include: Mary Goggin, Roxanne Fairweather, Martha Dolan, Megan Stewart, Tracy Gulliver, Tracy Allen, Carol Lachapelle, Darcy Grant, Colette Wasson, Colleen Benson, Christina Taylor, Kristina Taylor, Ruth Shaw, Dawn MacIsaac, Patricia Evans, Jo Lumsden, Mary Kaye, Irina Kondratova, Genia Kondratova, Tshering Dema, Sonam Wangmo, Mani Pelmo, Janice El-Bayoumi, Julie Barnet, Sarah Sosiak, Sue Andrew Ibach, Melanie Anderson, Lisa Totton, Cheryl Jacobs, Jaishree Raman, Shelley Petley, Anaya Meldrum, Baharak Ghorbani, Natalie Webber, Wei Song, Janet Noye, Lori MacMullen, and Leah Bidlake.
As a side note, the IT industry would benefit from the participation of way more women. It’s a fabulous sector in which to work and grow, to be part of a critical industry that needs the perspective of more women. Consider encouraging young women you know to consider studying computer science. If you are worried about fitting in, feel free to explore studying computer science at the University of New Brunswick in eastern Canada. Young women are very welcome here!