The History of Female Software Engineers

The field of software development has been facing a diversity crisis for some time now. It’s well known that there are implicit gender biases facing education and employment, with vastly more men than women at every step of the career ladder. However, while the industry is struggling to become more inclusive, it hasn’t always been that way. Software engineering may be male-dominated, but there are plenty of women who have helped shape the industry into what it is today. 

The fact is that women have held a vital role in computer science and software engineering development from the outset. You could go as far as saying that computers and the Internet as we know them today wouldn’t exist without their vital contributions. 

Ada Lovelace – The First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 to the poet Lord Byron. However, instead of wanting her to follow in her father’s footsteps, her mother, Lady Byron, encouraged her to study mathematics. She spent her childhood approaching problems methodically, investigating how birds could fly and trying to work out how she could too. From an early age, she developed the perfect blend of imagination and mechanical ingenuity. 

Lovelace really made an impact when she met renowned mathematician Charles Babbage and an unlikely friendship ensued. It was when he mentioned his new project, the ‘Analytical Engine’, that her path into the history books became firmly set. Lovelace translated the paper about the machine into French, adding her own notes covering difficult and abstract questions and making it three times the length of the original. Her translation was published in 1843 and represented a great contribution to computer science. Within it is a detailed plan for what is believed to be the very first algorithm. While the machine was never built, the paper was used to build the first computer a century later. 

Since 2009, Lovelace has been formally recognised for her contributions to mathematics and science. There is also the Ada Initiative, a non-profit organisation that organises conferences and training programs to elevate women in technology. Although, on the flip side, there are still people who seek to disprove her achievements, a story women in technology are only too familiar with. 

The ENIAC Six – The First Digital Computer Programmers

In the 1930s, it was far more common for women to study mathematics than it is today. So much so that, during World War II, the US assembled a team of over 80 women, known as ‘computers’ to manually compute complex ballistic trajectory equations for the armed forces.  

In 1943, six women from the ‘computers’ were recruited to work out how to program the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), a massive computing machine commissioned by the army. It was an incredible assignment for a developer, the chance to program the world’s first modern computer from scratch. The women, Betty Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman and Frances Bilas Spence, were highly trained mathematicians, but they had no blueprint to follow, just wiring and logical diagrams. They had to translate their calculations into steps that the ENIAC could handle and literally wire the machine. The result was a machine which could complete a differential calculus equation in minutes instead of the hours required for a mechanical desktop calculator. 

When the ENIAC was unveiled to the public in 1946, the women who made it run weren’t mentioned. People marvelled at the engineers who built it, but did not appreciate the monumental undertaking the ENIAC Six took to get it to work. The six women were virtually erased from history. Yet, the ENIAC itself lives on; it was the foundation of the first commercially-produced computer and the predecessor of everything we use today in our smartphones and laptops.

Grace Hopper – The Pioneer of Software Development

Grace Hopper, born in 1906, was another young girl whose analytical mind was encouraged by her mother. In 1934, she received a PhD in mathematics and physics from Yale, one of the few women to earn such a degree. During World War II, Hopper joined the US Navy Reserve and became one of the Harvard IBM Mark I computer programmers. She then went on to work on the Mark II and III computers after the war, eventually being awarded the Naval Ordnance Development Award for her efforts. 

Hooper had a vision for how a wider audience could use computers and helped cocreate the UNIVAC I, the second commercial computer produced in the US. She also created a compiler to transform source code between languages, which went on to make coding languages more practical and accessible and was on the committee that developed the COBOL language, which is still used today. Grace Hopper has received many honorary degrees, awards and honours for her efforts both during her lifetime and posthumously. 

Margaret Hamilton – The First Software Engineer

Margaret Hamilton was a programmer at MIT in the 60s, where she contributed to writing code for the first portable computer. Not only was Hamilton one of the first software engineers, she created the term to describe her work and became director of the Software Engineering Division. It was from that very division at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory that the computer for NASA was developed. Hamilton worked on all the Apollo manned missions as well as several unmanned missions, and her code was critical to Apollo’s success. She was responsible for the onboard guidance software, which is vital to computers today to prioritise tasks.

In 1986, Hamilton founded her own company, Hamilton Technologies Inc., where she created the Universal Systems Language (USL) and an integrated software development environment for generating software systems and simulations. She has since been honoured by NASA for the value of her innovations and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to software development for the Apollo missions. 

Where Are the Women Now?

The women we’ve highlighted are just a few of the many women who have contributed to the development of software engineering to date. However, while there have been many more, few are celebrated as they should be. The roles of women have often been overlooked, downplayed or downright ignored. Astonishing when you acknowledge that the computers and technology we use today wouldn’t be here without their invaluable contribution.

After World War II, many private companies employed women as programmers, accounting for around half of the workforce. However, their work was undervalued, underpaid and unappreciated and they were soon expected to stop work and start families. Many left the workforce and, overtime, the number of female software engineers has declined even further. While in the World War II era, the word girl was interchangeable with computer, it evolved to become quite the opposite. The personal computers of the eighties were mainly marketed to men, cultural imagination began to associate computing with masculinity and the contributions of the pioneers we’ve mentioned were soon forgotten. 
Today there continues to be a shocking lack of female software engineers, especially within leadership roles. More the pity for innovation and technological advancement; many studies have proven that diversity leads to better decision-making and collaboration. With fewer recent role models to look to, fewer women enter the industry and the cycle continues. The fact is that a diverse workforce improves every industry and software engineering is no different; you just have to look back at the history of female software engineers to see what a monumental impact women can make. It’s time for a comeback.

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