Women in IT: Background

Women in IT: Background

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5860-8.ch001
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The historical context of women in technology is introduced through individual and collective tales of notable women in the field, from Hypatia of Alexandria through to World War II Code Breakers. The lives of these women show that while women in technology (and its ancestors philosophy and mathematics) have been present throughout history, for millennia the pervading social and cultural contexts formed strong barriers against them. These barriers were so pervasive that they not merely hindered but practically suppressed female involvement in such fields. Yet, some women leaped those barriers, often in creative and interesting ways, to not only pursue their interests but also positively contribute to the overall fields of technology, science, and engineering. However, it took exceptionally resilient, strong individuals to do so.
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Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.

– Hypatia of Alexandria, 4th Century AD (attributed) (BrainyQuote, 2013)



Throughout history there have been women in technology (and its ancestors philosophy and mathematics) who have made key contributions (Alic, 1986). They have not been in abundance, but they have been there. But what has history captured, and what is really known? There was a time when women could only be published under male pseudonyms. There was a time when girls were not educated or not allowed to enter the halls of higher learning. The pervading social and cultural contexts hindered and practically suppressed female involvement in these key fields. However some enterprising, resilient females managed: some masquerading as men, some using male names or having work published via a male colleague; a few managing to become known in their own right. Reflecting our modern concerns where the issue is much broader than just IT, similar issues were faced by pioneering women in science as well. In both cases it took exceptionally resilient, strong individuals to know their interest areas, to pursue them and to achieve in the face of the prevailing cultural and social conditions.

The history of early computing is peppered with tales of the early computers and the pioneers behind them. Generally the first names people associate with them are Colossus (Alan Turing), ENIAC (John Mauchly and Presper Eckert), UNIVAC (Eckert and Mauchly), ILLIAC (John von Neumann) and CSIRAC (Trevor Pearcey). But as the information below demonstrates, women were involved as programmers and analysts across all of those early computers; though their involvement was relatively unreported and “below the line,” it was there.

This chapter is not meant to be a complete history of women in technology, which would be a book in its own right. Rather its intent is to highlight some historical pioneers and their contributions, while drawing out the social and cultural circumstances that have contributed to the “lack of women in technology” throughout history. As you read you may begin to see that often these pioneers went unrecognised for their achievements, and certainly all of them had to overcome the barriers of their times.

Women are rarely mentioned in the technology history books, with the exception of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. These two high profile pioneers are generally the first that are noted, spoken about, and presented as evidence that women have played a role in the technology fields (Table 1).

Table 1.
The most recognised female pioneers in computing
EraPersonRoleSignificant Contribution
1815 - 1852Ada LovelaceAnalyst, Metaphysician and Founder of Scientific ComputingFirst computer programmer
1906 - 1992Grace HopperPioneer Computer ScientistCompilers and machines understanding normal language

There are interesting and compelling tales behind both of these “IT Leading Ladies,” such as Ada’s rumoured affair(s) and gambling addition, and Grace’s literal “computer bug.” Elements of those stories are related below.

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