While most seven-year-olds scribbled on walls, there is a tale of one precocious child who was fixated with how alarm clocks worked. This child dismantled nearly 8 clocks, before discovering how to rearrange it back together. If we hadn’t known the gender of this child, most would have presumed it was the shenanigans of a young boy; but this is the story of Grace Murray Hopper.
Credited with teaching computers how to read English, she was a natural-born tinkerer who, from childhood, demonstrated a dogged curiosity about how things worked.
Hopper is not an anomaly. She followed the lead of scores of women from the 18th century who formed the world’s first ‘programmers’. Emerging just before the digital age, these women doubled down as computers to laboriously do math by hand, powering everything from astronomy to war.
From developing scientific computations to predicting Halley’s Comet and the motion of Venus, and to being pioneers in writing the first algorithm for a computer – women have contributed substantially to this industry. However, even if technology was dominated by women in its early days, this began to change as it evolved into modern software. Women’s roles as programmers went through a marked shift, and their achievements were either downplayed or forgotten.
Why are women – the pioneers of computing – striving for gender equality in technology today?
Before we can answer that, it is important to understand how they found themselves making groundbreaking contributions in coding – even in an age where women had fewer ‘careers’.
Women In Technology
As referenced above, this started in the 18th century during the hunt for Halley’s comet – an endeavor that was largely credited to French astronomer and mathematician Nicole-Reine Lepaute. Since the calculations required were too complex for any single astronomer, it was delegated among several people, setting the stage for the age of ‘human computers’.
By the 19th century, scientists were collecting reams of data that needed to be processed – giving rise to work that entailed solving basic math problems. Although not necessarily hard, it required precision and an ability to work for long hours, which conveys a great deal about why women were in demand as workers during this time.
This demand stretched over to the 20th century during World War I with the Army hiring groups of women to calculate artillery trajectory tables to support male engineers. The work was largely viewed as dull, and hence, was rejected by men with elite education.
By the late 20th century, it was universally acknowledged that hiring women not only ensured work was done with minimal complaints, it also reduced the cost of computation, explaining why half of all human computers were women. In fact, they were paid less than half of what men at the time got. And this gendered wage gap continued even after the growth of education among women.
After the war ended, the space race was on, and that is where women truly came to their own. The resulting need for increased computation created the demand for female programmers, who crunched numbers to eventually put men on the moon.
Man must have taken one small step on the moon half a century ago, but there is no contending the fact that this feat was accomplished with the help of numerous women who worked tirelessly on the lunar mission.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had hired hundreds of women at its Langley base in Virginia, and also reportedly paid them better wages as well. Although women make up only a third of NASA’s workforce today, the company was relatively progressive for its time by employing married women with children, and nearly 80 black women during the 1960s.
One of them was Katherine Johnson who is portrayed in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Well-respected for her mathematical abilities, her calculations helped NASA achieve manned spaceflight.
With education and opportunities expanding, why are there not more female coders today?
Gender Gap In IT
The story of female computers stands in contrast to the difficulties faced by women in technology today. Even if they had to deal with sexist attitudes in the 19th and 20th centuries, women were still valued for their skills. But this is no longer the case.
One possible reason could be the replacement of human computers with digital versions. These digital computers were more efficient, worked at greater speeds and were capable of handling complex mathematics. Since it was largely their math skills that helped launch their careers, the advance of the digital age signalled their sentence as well. But the rot in the tech industry is much deeper.
Female coders are regarded skeptically and their technical prowess is repeatedly questioned. They are often infantilised at the workplace, and even treated with extreme hostility on some occasions. A popular – and highly erroneous – assumption among people is that women are not ‘biologically wired’ to be great programmers and are hence, dismissed or overlooked for promotion.
This has resulted in larger numbers of women dropping out of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and now they account for a smaller proportion of those employed in computing. And why wouldn’t that happen, given the circumstances in which they would have to go into that field.
Another reason could be the paltry pay that is reserved for positions that women largely occupy – or are offered – like ‘front-end’ programming, for instance. The salary within this specialty tends to be lower, not because the work is any less demanding, but because the industry largely regards anything done by women simple.
It is then a travesty that although women comprise more than half of the professional workforce, they make up only 25% of computing and mathematical occupations across industries since 2007. And this number has regressed over time.
As of February 2020, women represent less than 28% of the AI workforce in India, working at a median annual salary of just Rs 10.7 Lakhs. Furthemore, the American Association of University Women states that women held 35% of STEM jobs 30 years ago, indicating that fewer women are joining technology today. Although no firm reason has been established to explain this trend, some women continue to make significant strides in technology.
IN 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck became the first woman to win mathematics’ prestigious Abel Prize. She was given this recognition for ‘for her pioneering achievements in geometric partial differential equations, gauge theory and integrable systems.’
Bringing Women Back To Tech
Women at all stages of their work lives have faced discrimination and in some cases, this has manifest itself right from school in male-dominated classrooms. This necessitates that women support each other in this endeavour. By collaborating and building together, women can demonstrate by example how community participation can effectively prevent other minorities from feeling excluded at the workplace.
Moreover, by celebrating a woman’s ‘accomplishments’ in being a model wife and mother as her highest calling is a big disservice to them. Instead, families should support intellectual curiosity among girls right from early childhood.
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Anu is a writer who stews in existential angst and actively seeks what’s broken. Lover of avant-garde films and BoJack Horseman fan theories, she has previously worked for Economic Times. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org