How Women Paved the Way for Computer Programming

Women were once the largest workforce in the computing industry. In truth, history is filled with plenty of female trailblazers who laid the foundations of this highly-valued field.

BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT!

  • In the past, programming and computing were predominantly done by women. 
  • Around the 19th century, most hardware engineers were men, while most software engineers were women.
  • The gender disparity between software and hardware engineering was caused by the way society viewed both fields. Software engineering was a “menial” and “unskilled” job, while hardware engineering was a “prestigious” and “high-status” field.
  • Some of the first trailblazers for computer programming were women! Notable pioneers include Jean Bartik, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, and Grace Hopper.

Most people know that software programming is a male-dominated field, but this hasn’t always been the case… Before the 1970s, software engineering was not yet perceived as an actual or legitimate discipline, while hardware engineering was already considered as a prestigious and high-status field. This is why most hardware engineers back then were male, while the “menial” or “unskilled” jobs of software engineering were mostly delegated to women. However, their jobs actually involved operating room-sized computers, sorting out military logistics, manipulating data, and analyzing complex calculations.

Unsurprisingly, some of the first pioneers for computer programming were, in fact, women! Let’s get to know some of them who have made astonishing contributions to the field.

Jean Bartik

Jean Bartik and Frances Spence operating the ENIAC’s main control panel

By the beginning of World War II, machine computers had not yet been developed to perform complex calculations. Because of this, mathematicians (most of whom were women) were hired as “human computers” to calculate ballistic (gun) firing tables. One of these “human computers” was Jean Bartik, a mathematician and programmer.

She later worked as part of the all-female team of six that worked on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). As this was the world’s first programmable general-purpose computer, Bartik and the team had to learn how to program from scratch. With this, the ENIAC Six are known as some of the first computer programmers in history.

“I think men will always find an excuse for keeping women in their ‘place.’ So, let’s make that place the executive suite and start more of our own companies.” – Jean Bartik

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to listings of the source code that she and her team wrote

Margaret Hamilton is a mathematician and systems software engineer known to have written code that “brought humanity to the moon.” She led the team in charge of developing the on-board flight software for NASA’s Project Apollo, which landed the first humans on the moon. Hamilton and her team wrote code for the control and guidance systems of the command module and the lunar module.

Hamilton was also known to have been the first to coin or popularize the term “software engineering” in order to legitimize the profession and to give software developers the respect that they’re due. She believed that software developers deserved to be called “engineers” as well.

“Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline.” – Margaret Hamilton

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson working as a “computer” at NASA

Katherine Johnson was a research mathematician, which was a tough career to pursue as an African-American woman at that time, but she still earned a reputation for herself in the aerospace industry. Her contributions paved the way for computer machines to be able to execute calculations. She also worked on NASA’s Project Apollo, as well as Project Mercury, wherein she was asked to verify the first calculations of an actual electronic computer.

Both racial segregation and sex discrimination were incredibly rampant during this time, and these were things Johnson experienced in her workplace. Back then, her office, which included other black mathematicians, was specifically labeled as “Colored Computers,” which is both discriminating and dehumanizing. This was also a time wherein female NASA employees were not allowed to write their names on any reports.

“We needed to be assertive as women in those days—assertive and aggressive.” – Katherine Johnson

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper operating a manual tape punch computer

Grace Hopper was known for developing computer languages and inventing one of the world’s first linkers. Despite working in such male-dominated fields, she was still an incredibly successful computer scientist and naval officer. By the beginning of World War II, she had tried to enlist in the Navy, but was rejected due to her age and small stature. Still, she persevered, and was then admitted into the U.S. Women’s Naval Reserve.

Hopper was also one of the first computer programmers, known for her contributions in programming the Harvard Mark I computer, the first operating machine that could automatically perform complex operations and calculations.

“The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’” – Grace Hopper

In contrast to the modern stereotypes in the field of computer programming nowadays, it is undoubted that, throughout history, women have made remarkable contributions that paved the way for this industry. As glorified as men have been for even the smallest contributions from then till now, the same amount of recognition and gratitude must be given to the women who have always made great achievements and revolutions to several fields with a perpetually added challenge.

Written by Aneko Delfin
Edited by Alain Tavita
Graphics by Io Desamparado

REFERENCES

Boyer, J. (2017, September 18). History of women in software engineering. Simple Programming. https://simpleprogrammer.com/female-software-engineers/

Brewer, K. (2017, August 10). How the tech industry wrote women out of history. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2017/aug/10/how-the-tech-industry-wrote-women-out-of-history

Brodsky, Z. (2018, November 15). 5 female pioneers of software development we’re grateful for this Thanksgiving. WhiteSource. https://www.whitesourcesoftware.com/resources/blog/5-female-pioneers-of-software-development/ 

Fox, M. (2020, February 25). Katherine Johnson dies at 101; mathematician broke barriers at NASA. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/24/science/katherine-johnson-dead.html 

Smith, G. (2007, December 13). Unsung innovators: Jean Bartik, ENIAC programmer. Computer World. https://www.computerworld.com/article/2540042/unsung-innovators–jean-bartik–eniac-programmer.html

Sowelo Consulting. (2019, March 8). It is a men’s world… or is it? Women who paved the way in technology. https://sowelo.eu/women-who-paved-the-way-in-technology/

Weinstock, M. (2016, August 17). Scene at MIT: Margaret Hamilton’s Apollo code. MIT News. https://news.mit.edu/2016/scene-at-mit-margaret-hamilton-apollo-code-0817

Yale News. (2017, February 10). Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992): A legacy of innovation and service. https://news.yale.edu/2017/02/10/grace-murray-hopper-1906-1992-legacy-innovation-and-service

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