My youngest brother was the first person in my family to get a computer game. It was the early 1980s and I remember him playing that Atari for hours… Mario Bros, with its earworm soundtrack, and Asteroids were his favorites. I played too, but not for very long and never with any great interest. I just wasn’t fascinated by technology; I’ve never once considered a career in coding and often feign ignorance to get out of programming digital devices. Turns out, I’m the anomaly. Women, I’ve learned, were the original techsperts.
Though many of us think of men like Steve Wozniack, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as the giants of computer innovation, their work built on the efforts of earlier coders and programmers—a significant percentage of whom were women. The original coder was an English mathematician named Lady Ada Lovelace. In 1842–43, she wrote what is now considered the first software in history, for inventor Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the world’s first computer. Curiously, Lady Lovelace was the daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron; her mother had encouraged Ada’s interest in mathematics as an antidote to her father’s perceived mental imbalance.
From Lady Lovelace to well over the next century, men continued to focus on building computer hardware; creating and inputting commands on punch cards was considered largely secretarial in nature and was often assigned to women as a result.
According to The Secret History of Women in Coding, published in February 2019 in the New York Times Magazine, “women were among the field’s earliest, towering innovators and once a common sight in corporate America.” Point of fact, the field of programming and coding during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s was remarkably open. Women like Mary Allen Wilkes (who went to work at M.I.T. after being dissuaded from a law career) and Arlene Gwendolyn Lee (a Canadian woman of colour who couldn’t even rent an apartment because of her biracial heritage) were welcomed to the profession because of their results on pattern recognition aptitude tests. Even if you had no prior experience—and really, almost no one had prior programming experience back then—if you had a precise mind and a flair for creative logic, employers accepted that you could be taught to program.
Though many of us think of men like Steve Wozniack, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as the giants of computer innovation, their work built on the efforts of earlier coders and programmers—a significant percentage of whom were women.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you’re likely familiar with The Bletchley Circle, a TV series about four women codebreakers in the U.K. What you might not have realized is that it’s based on a true story: Bletchley Park was the Allies’ secret codebreaking weapon during WWII and approximately 75 per cent of their personnel were women. The Hollywood film Hidden Figures is also based on the true story of the black women programmers whose work was integral to NASA’s early space program.
Another true story? As the New York Times Magazine article noted, it was an all-woman team who programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac) during the 1940s and in doing so pioneered a number of software’s core concepts. They identified the usefulness of break points as a key part of the debugging process, an idea that is still widely used today. Despite everything they did and accomplished, Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman have largely been forgotten by history.
They aren’t the only women history has forgotten. In 1983-’84, 37.1 per cent of the people graduating from computer and information science programs were women; by 2010, that number had dropped to 17.6 per cent. The cause? The NYT magazine story postulates that it was because the first wave of home computers and video games were marketed as boy toys. Over time, that stereotype became unfortunate reality.
This issue, being released in conjunction with International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to Atlantic Canada’s women in technology. More specifically, we celebrate women coders and game changers. Not all tech-sector jobs are technical in nature, but that’s where we are deliberately putting our focus. Computer programming and coding was once considered ideal work for women; we want to show that it still is. •