08 March 2015

Women, back to the keyboards!

Computer Science history

Even though the gender balance in the computer science education at University of Copenhagen leans to the masculine side, the past as well as the present show plenty of examples proving that women are just as competent as men within computer science. The world’s first programmer was a woman, and today women hold top positions in companies such as HP, Yahoo, and IBM.

Augusta Ada Byron Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace was born in England as the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. As a child, she was taught math by her mother, later by a private tutor, and as an adult she was included in the intellectual circle around Charles Babbage. She is best known for her work with Babbage’s 'Analytical Engine', the theoretical predecessor of today’s all-purpose programmable computers. Lovelace described operations for solving mathematical problems for the Analytical Engine, and therefore she is considered the world’s first conceptual programmer. Later she developed the ‘loop’ and 'subroutine’ operations – and all this 100 years before the invention of the first electronic computers.

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper was an Admiral in the American fleet, and her work was decisive in many of the development programs of the army. She was among the first programmers to work on IBM's Harvard Mark I (a computer inspired by Babbage’s Analytical Engine) during WWII, and she was the first person to develop a compiler for a programming language. Hopper influenced computer science as a strong proponent for computer independent programming languages, and she was part of the group of programmers that started using the term ‘to debug' about correcting flaws in the code – a term which has later won currency everywhere.  

Women programmers during WWII
During WWII, the United States suffered from an acute shortage of male labor – also in computing, which was an industry expanding rapidly in those years. From only being able to enter professional careers as nurses or schoolteachers, women were now hired as operators of computers. Programming, at this time, was considered a stereotypical female occupation requiring patience, endurance and an eye for detail. The women (notably Judy Clapp, Kathleen McNulty and Mildred Koss) had leading roles on projects such as UNIVAC and ENIAC – where they among other things used computers for calculating missile trajectories.

Edda Sveinsdottir (1936 -)
In a Danish context, Edda Sveinsdottir is probably the most important female computer scientist to date. She studied math and physics at the University of Copenhagen from where she earned her Master’s Degree in 1965. After that, she was employed at the Department of Mathematics, where she worked on the electronic calculator, GIER – Denmark’s second computer ever. When the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) was established in 1970, Sveinsdottir was employed as an associate professor, and she has been Head of Department several times. As such, Edda Sveinsdottir is not only Denmark’s first female computer scientist, she is also DIKU’s first an only female Head of Department.

Female computer science students in the 1980s
The 1980s saw the highest number of female computer science students ever. In the United States, 38% of the students enrolled in computer science majors were women in 1985, and in the Danish universities the enrollment of female computer science students peaked in this period, too. In the following years, however, this number fell dramatically. Many theories has been proposed to explain this development - one of the most prevalent is that women were discouraged from pursuing careers in computer science because pesonal computers in the late 80s were marketed as a man’s tool. This image has been difficult for computer science to shed. Read more about the phenomenon in this article from Computerworld.dk.

Female IT-big shots today
Even though the share of women in computer science today is critically low, there are plenty of female role models in the top of the IT-industry. Maybe the most famous example is the 39-year-old computer scientist, Marissa Mayer, who is the CEO of Yahoo, but female presidents of IT-businesses are no rarity anymore. For instance, Meg Whitman is the president of HP, and at IBM the computer scientist Ginni Rometty has been the CEO since 2012. Danish prominent examples include the Danish born Corinna Cortes who is Head of Google Research, NY, and Cecilla Bonnefeld-Dahl who is the president of The Danish IT Industry Association (ITB), the largest trade organization for IT-businesses in Denmark.