December 3, 2020

Women Who Code: Meet History's Greatest Female Programmers

With the number of women in computer science decreasing, strong female role models are needed to help bridge the gender gap in the tech industry. Here are some of history’s top female programmers to introduce to your child and the wise words that they lived by.

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With the number of women in computer science decreasing, strong female role models are needed to help bridge the gender gap in the tech industry.

Psychologist Penelope Lockwood’s study on same gender role models found that because women face negative stereotypes regarding their skills in the workplace they benefit from having strong female role models who’ve overcome gender barriers to achieve success. And in contrast, that men don’t necessarily have the same need for same-gender role models.

Here are some of history’s top female programmers to introduce to your child and the wise words that they lived by.

Ada Lovelace

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Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) First Computer Programmer

Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and has been referred to as a ‘prophet of the computer age.’ She’s best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer and is believed to be the first person who recognized that the computer can do things beyond calculations and created the first algorithm for it.

To celebrate the achievements of women in STEM careers, the second Tuesday of every October was dedicated to Ava Lovelace Day.

Her lasting impression: “Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things. But to use and apply that language, we must be able to fully appreciate, to feel, to seize the unseen, the unconscious.”

Explore her full story.

Grace Hopper

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Grace Hopper (1906 - 1992) Computer Scientist & Navy Admiral

The multi-talented Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist and a rear admiral for the United States Navy. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University and was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer.

She created the theory of machine-independent programming languages and her FLOW-MATIC programming language she invented using this theory led to the creation of COBOL - a programming language that we still use today.

Words she lived by: "To me, programming is more than an important practical art. It is also a gigantic undertaking in the foundations of knowledge."

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller

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Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913 - 1985) Computer Science Pioneer

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller defied the norms of her time. She was the first American woman (and nun!) to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science and was part of the small team that developed the computer programming language, BASIC.

An advocate for tech education and knowledge for all, she founded the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa and led it for 20 years.

Her Famous Words: “We’re having an information explosion, and it’s certainly obvious that information is of no use unless it’s available.”

The ENIAC Six Computer Programmers

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The ENIAC Six Programmers

These women are to thank for the programming behind the first electronic computer: Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holder, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. They had to use logical diagrams to program because programming languages didn’t yet exist. The ENIAC - Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer - was a secret World War II project run by the U.S. Army and was the first computer that could send complex calculus equations in seconds!

These women didn’t receive recognition for their work until the mid-1980s and the ENIAC Programmers Project was created to give them credit where credit was due.

Advice for female entrepreneurs: “I was told I'd never make it to VP rank because I was too outspoken. Maybe so, but 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

Evelyn Boyd Granville

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Evelyn Boyd Granville (1924 - ) Space Race Contributor & Educator

Trailblazer, Evelyn Boyd Granville was the second African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics at any American University. A pioneer in computing, her work on orbit computation and rocket trajectories for the Apollo program at the US Space Technology Laboratories contributed to the space race.

She later moved on to develop elementary school math enrichment programs and worked in education for over 30 years and is a strong advocate for tech education for women to this day.

What education gave her: “We accepted education as the means to rise above the limitations that a prejudiced society endeavored to place upon us.”

Annie Easley

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Annie Easley (1933 - 2011) Computer Programmer, Rocket Scientist & Advocate for Equity In the Workplace

Nothing or no one could hinder Annie Easley’s thirst for knowledge. She began her career at NACA (before it was NASA) as a “human computer” in a lab where she did computations for researchers. Once machines replaced human computers, she then continued to grow her skill set and became a computer programmer. She worked on numerous projects for NASA and her code was used in researching energy conversion systems, which led to battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles. She also worked on Centaur technology - a high-energy rocket technology to boost rockets into space.

Still wanting to grow her knowledge, she then returned to school to get her degree in Mathematics while still working full time. An advocate for equality in the workplace, she later took on the role of equal employment opportunity counsellor at NASA and helped supervisors address issues of gender, race and age discrimination.

Advice from her mother that she lived by: “You’re never too old, and if you want to, as my mother said, you can do anything you want to, but you have to work at it.”

Radia Perlman

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Radia Perlman (1958 - ) Computer Scientist, Educator, Author & Speaker

Radia Perlman helped to make today’s internet possible. After completing her Ph.D. in Computer Science at MIT, she went on to develop the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which contributed to the underlying infrastructure that helped the Internet to succeed. Beyond her most famous accomplishment, she has over 100 issued patents, taught at Harvard University, MIT and the University of Washington, written 2 textbooks and has been a keynote speaker at prominent global conferences.

Advice Radia wished she knew as a child: “It’s okay to ask for help. When doing a final exam, all the work must be yours, but in engineering, the point is to get the job done, and people are happy to help.”

Karen Spärck Jones

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Karen Spärck Jones (1935 - 2007) Computer Scientist & Advocate

Karen Sparck Jones was a British computer scientist whose work on inverse document frequency is the underlying infrastructure used for most of today’s search engines. She taught computers to understand human thought and was an advocate for women in the computer science community.

Her life's slogan: “I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men.”

Final Thoughts:

For the gender gap to truly close in the tech industry, we need more female representation in computer science and STEM careers and girls need to see this representation from an early age.

Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, encapsulates the solution by pointing out the problem: “If women had been more prominently talked about in computing, both in the history books and schools, we literally would not have the lack of women programmers that we do today.”

Spark your child's interest for computer science and introduce them to coding.

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