A woman sits at her computer

Historical Women and Their “Firsts”: Technology

Historical Women and Their “Firsts”: Technology

The gender gap in tech careers has been notoriously adverse, and only recently have women been actively encouraged to pursue careers in computer science and engineering. Programs like “Girls Who Code” are examples of modern day organizations that support and reach out to young girls who are interested in pursuing careers in technology. Nevertheless, women, while often overlooked, have been at the forefront of technological advancement for quite literally hundreds of years. Some prominent figures include Ada Lovelace, Annie Easley, Mary Allen Wilkes, and Adele Goldberg, which I will discuss further. 

If you have heard of the Turing test, then you might have also heard of the Lovelace objection — an argument about consciousness put forward by Ada Lovelace. Ada Lovelace, also known as Ada King, countess of Lovelace, was a British mathematician and the first computer programmer. She worked with Charles Babbage, who created the original digital computer prototype, to develop the first computer programming language. In response to Turing’s idea that computers can think, Ada Lovelace argued that computers are in fact not capable of original thought. Her advancements in computer science and mathematics in the early 1800s were extremely important for the development of digital computers as we know them today, and today she is a great influence for female programmers. 

Annie Easley was born in 1933 and started her career in Cleveland, Ohio, where she did computations from researchers. She then went on to work for NASA as a computer programmer while she was a student at Cleveland State, getting her degree in mathematics. Outside of programming, Easley was extremely involved in organizations like Ski Club and the Business & Professional Women’s association. Her capability to break gender and racial stereotypes by pursuing a career in technology is inspiring and motivating, as she spent a great amount of time encouraging young female and minority students to pursue careers in science and mathematics. 

“Mary Allen, when you grow up, you should be a computer programmer!” Mary Allen Wilkes’ teacher told her this when she was a teenager, but because computers were very new in the 1950s, Wilkes brushed this off and went on to Wellesley College to study philosophy. After discouragement from mentors, Wilkes decided against applying to law school and instead got hired as a computer programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her time as a philosophy major studying symbolic logic helped prepare her for stringing codes together; she advanced quickly and became established as a programmer. Nevertheless, the lack of female coders was very prominent at this time and women did not get much credit for their work, which traditionally held her back.

Adele Goldberg, also from Cleveland, Ohio, went to the University of Michigan and studied mathematics and went on to earn her Ph.D. in information science from the University of Chicago in 1973. As a programmer for a research lab, she helped develop Smalltalk, a programming language, and co-found the ParcPlace System. As a CEO of this company, Goldberg struggled with difficult work environments and spends time advising young women who are looking to start careers in programming. 

These women have all faced different experiences and challenges throughout their careers in technology, but their perseverance and commitment to programming has paved the way for many young girls today to pursue their interests in computing. 






https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programming.html https://ethw.org/Oral-History:Adele_Goldberg