A while ago I compiled a list of my IT heroes and observed that they were all white men. What no heroines!
I can’t rewrite my own personal history or change the circumstances by which Sinclair, Berners-Lee, Turing et al were significant in my life and career choices. A more interesting and relevant question is, who are the heroes and heroines that inspire today’s millennials as they enter the workplace? IT is a very different place now compared to the pre-internet, pre-mobile world of the 1970’s & 1980’s; there are now more technology and information-based careers, most of which are not even that technical!
There are more women in the job market*, and, one would hope less prejudice and barriers to entry to typically male careers…of which more later.
*As reported by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) in 2015; 47% of the total UK labour force were females but this drops to 27% in digital industries (whatever that means?), down from a high-water mark of 33% in 2002.
It would be a bit disingenuous of me to compile a list of female IT heroes, but I don’t need to because the current issue of the British Computer Society (BCS) magazine ITNow has done it for me. (Summer 2016)
Hedy Lamarr, film star and inventor
At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr jointly developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. The principles of this work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, CDMA and Bluetooth technology.
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, mathematician
Ada is often called the world’s first computer programmer and is chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt, astronomer
Not an obvious choice, but the compiler of this list liked her cool job title computer! In 1893 Swan Leavitt made a discovery about the luminosity of stars by examining photographic plates to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars.
Karen Spärck Jones, computer scientist
Former Professor of Computing and Information at the University of Cambridge, Sparck-Jones worked in automatic language and information processing research. She wrote a paper way back in 1972 that influenced the launch of the first commercial web browser.
Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, computer scientist
Brewster-Murray (why so many double-barrels, maybe that is itself a gender issue – discuss!) was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944 and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. She was also involved in machine independent programming languages, which led to COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.
Professor Margaret Ross MBE, Emeritus Professor of Software Quality at Southampton Solent University
Ross is an honorary Fellow of BCS. She received an MBE in 2009 for services to higher education, and has particular interests in software quality, education and gender issues in computing.
(Ed. I’m generally quite relaxed when it comes to PC/non-PC names – I’m a robot after all! But the academic term ‘Fellow’ seems a bit archaic, and for that matter so does Madam Chairman/Chairwoman – in fact anything that makes gender part of the role. Professor, Principal, Manager, Director, Dean etc. all work. I digress; luckily all the IT roles listed later in this post are non-gender-specific.)
Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, founder of software company Freelance Programmers
Steve(!) wanted to create job opportunities for women with dependents, and predominantly employed women, with only three male programmers in the first 300 staff, until a legislation change in 1975. Her team’s projects included programming Concorde’s black box flight recorder.
Marissa Ann Mayer, computer scientist is president and CEO of Yahoo
While working at Google, Mayer taught introductory computer programming at Stanford and mentored students at the East Palo Alto Charter School.
Cordelia Schmid, computer scientist
Schmid was awarded the Longuet-Higgins prize for fundamental contributions in computer vision. She is a fellow of the IEEE and presented the 2015 Karen Spärck Jones lecture.
An interesting list, although with the exception of Hedy Lamarr (who knew!), and maybe Ada and Mayer it’s not very populist is it, but then the BCS is a professional body, so maybe it’s not meant to be a representative list, singing to a choir made up of IT professionals?
From my personal perspective I would add Baroness Martha Lane Fox CBE. I came across her in person as Open University chancellor talking about the power of education and digital inclusion. Since co-founding Lastminute.com in 1998 and being a significant figure in the dotcom boom in the early 2000’s she has had various business, charity and governmental roles
Last but not least, a recommendation from an IT elementary school contributor after my earlier list of males; Molly Holzschlag (also known as ‘mollydotcom’) is a prolific web design author and evangelist for the open web and accessibility. A quote from a colleague sums it up;
If Tim Berners-Lee is the father of the Web, than Molly is its fairy godmother.
The guest editor for this edition of ITNow also writes the feature article, ‘I am not a girl gamer’ (http://katerussell.co.uk/)
Kate Russell started her interest in IT as a dedicated, no let’s say obsessed, gamer. This is in the 1980’s when graphics were rudimentary, so the wonder of the new technology and the game play had to engage and sustain the player, in this case intergalactic trading. This was her platform for a successful career as a writer, journalist and technology blogger,
I think all of us of a certain age who work in IT have these seminal wow moments, in my case programming a [Sinclair] ZX81 and getting to play with BBC microcomputer at school. I echo Russell’s sentiment,
I often feel a bit sorry for young people today as they will never truly understand the wonder of going from not having computers, to having computers
I would also add the web, mobile/smart phones…but that’s probably just nostalgia. My children and grandchildren might say the same about virtual reality, robot helpers, driverless cars and interstellar travel!
However, there is a slightly worrying trend for the next generation of adults, in the slightly unreal world of gaming and the ubiquity of devices, games, and virtual experiences, what place physical engagement with the real world and the richer multi-sensory and social situations that we all need. In a recent survey of teenage boys, 27% said that a new game was their most memorable experience in the last year, and more than a quarter believed that online adventures were as satisfying as real life.
Although Russell complains about being asked for her, ‘…female perspective on technology’, she is in a perfect position to recognise the gender stereotypes and to support moves to close the gap and create true gender neutrality. That said, the idea that a teenage girl would ever willingly and comfortably join a completely male domain, say a science lab at school, or an all-male team of developers, says more about human nature than biology!
The unconscious bias of all concerned, the peer and parental pressure, and yes, the lack of role models all play a part in steering the majority of us into more traditional safer roles…and the technology sector is not the worst offender by any means. Think about the armed forces, builders, the automotive industry, city banking jobs etc.
Russell finishes by saying, ‘I am not a girl gamer, I am a gamer’. I meet a lot of women in my working life, and networking and tech-related support groups. In almost all cases the roles are gender-neutral, and to be honest, gender doesn’t matter against competence, teamwork and the softer EQ skills…I think we’re doing our bit for equality already!
– Digital Marketing
– UI/UX Design
– Web Design
– Technical writing/copywriting
– Social Media anything!
And more traditional roles, including:
– QA Tester
– Project Manager
– Business Analyst
– Senior managers in IT departments
– Buyers & sellers of technology-related products and services
There are a few male-dominated areas; I’ve yet to meet a female Database Administrator ‘DBA’, Architect or Chief Information/Digital Officer, and as I said the programming fraternity, well its just that, a bit too male and blokey!
Finally, yes there are some national and international IT heroines, but the real breakthrough will be when daughters see their mothers thriving in the technology sector, when parents and teachers recognize individual skill and aptitude above all else, and the media becomes a bit more balanced so that the idea of [girls] working in the industry becomes normalized.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Let me know your stories from the gender frontline. Who are your IT heroes and heroines, and what inspired you to take the technology or career path of most resistance!
© 2016 The IT elementary school