July 30, 2023

The Incredible History of Women in Computer Science

Olivia Guo

In our current time, women in computer science are celebrated because technology is considered a “male-dominated” field. While being a minority in a field should certainly be recognized, there should also be an acknowledgement of the contributions women in history had on the beginnings of programming.

Early Women Programmers:

Interestingly, early programmers were mostly women, as it was seen as a secretarial position. One such individual, Mary Wilkes played an incredibly influential role. While she was unsure of her ability at first because of her inexperience in code, her detail-oriented mind and work on the IBM 704 at MIT grew her to be a skilled computer scientist. In fact, she was even asked to finish work on the world’s first interactive personal computer, tasked with programming the user to input information of their own. Being a coder now, user input is one of the most powerful tools in programming, that allows people around the world to interact with each other, by allowing companies and individuals to gather information. So, it is evident that her work was no doubt integral to how we program today. Young women are always astonished to hear her story, knowing that women were those responsible for the powerful technology used on a daily basis.  

The influence of women in technology does not stop there, however. The first person to be considered a coder was also in fact a woman: Ada Lovelace. She created the first algorithm, where she fathomed the idea that the computer could modify its own instructions, and coders now utilize it in every single program they create. It should now come to no surprise that women were also the first to find out that code didn’t always run well the first time. Individuals known as Eniac women, were pioneers in computer science,  discovering the idea of finding and fixing bugs. Women were also the first to create compilers, with influential individuals like Grace Hopper. Allowing people to code in more human-like language made the field accessible to be learned and expanded. And the list goes on. Despite all of these accomplishments, these incredible women were hardly recognized for their work, and their credit was all too frequently taken by men.  

The Demographic Shift:

So while women participation in programming rose to 37% by 1983, this was not the case moving forward. Slowly but surely, programmers attending classes were majority men. Why? They were just simply more exposed to it over time, as parents were twice as likely to gift their sons computers rather than their daughters. The “idea” of who should be a computer scientist began to shift and the norm was now men, both in academia and in the corporate world. But why have we forgotten the roots of computer science? The idea of programming being male-dominated has shifted peoples’ perspectives, and people now think that women who code are rare and hardly seen. But the incredible history of women computer scientists should not be forgotten.

Why Should We Care?:

The beginnings of programming can no doubt be attributed to the many integral contributions to computer science that women have made. Coders today take these tools as fact but forget to recognize that programming would not exist without the pioneering influence of women programmers 200 years ago. So next time you engage with code in any form, whether it be as a software developer, a user, a data scientist, or a marketing analyst, consider that you can do the amazing work that you do today because of the impact of early women programmers.

Hi there! My name is Olivia Guo and I am a student studying Economics and Data Science at USC. While I started my university time as merely an Economics student, I have grown a great appreciation for data analytics, even pursuing it during my time here with Thaddeus. I am fascinated by how statistics can be utilized to predict and influence our future work, and I cannot wait to engage with this work in my future career. I also have other hobbies too! I love art, golf, and tide-pooling along the coast, and I am grateful that I continue to enjoy these activities in my time away from academics.

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