We all know the sobering stats: Only 16% of the US’s 3.1 million software engineers are women.
What we don’t emphasize often enough is that even though women make up a dismal fraction of software engineers, their influence is extraordinarily pervasive. They’re pioneering many cutting-edge technologies. SpaceX’s Amanda Stiles, for instance, doesn’t let naysayers keep her from simulating space exploration by building the F9, Dragon and Crew operations. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar is busy helping to build the first untethered hologram computer. How can we not mention Mary Lou Jepsen who is leading the next frontier of virtual reality at Facebook-owned Oculus.
The influence of female software engineers is felt all the time. In fact, we bet you can’t even go a day–heck, a few hours–without feeling the influence of female software engineers. From the very moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep, there’s a resilient female engineer who helped create the daily apps and technologies you touch.
Here’s an illustration, showcasing women behind popular, powerful technology we use hour by hour:
When you take a look at this powerful infographic, it’s actually really disturbing to see sensationalized headlines like: “Why are there so few female leaders in tech?” amplified in the media. (Other similar headlines here, here and here). There seems to be a new article every day that claims to pinpoint the core problem resulting in few women in tech. From amiss gender stereotypes to unconscious bias during interviews, there are a myriad of reasons why there are such few women in engineering. But it’s a nuanced problem, and discussing the many reasons for it–alone–can be futile.
Our dialogue should also emphasize illuminating kickass women achieving amazing things. Female software engineers have immeasurable influence on the world today, prevailing the lack of diversity or hurdles of Boys’ Club that stand in their way. As Sabrina Farmer, a Google engineering manager who heads up Gmail, says:
“I’m not Superwoman, and my job is hard, but the pay is good and the perks are incredible, I have a great career and family, and the world has changed because of technology — and I’ve been a part of it.”
If all we ever talk about are the sobering percentages of few women in tech, our new generations of young girls might grow up believing that women aren’t as influential in building technology we depend on. In reality, with or without public recognition, women have always been the cornerstone of modern technology. Historically speaking, coding runs deep in females’ blood.
Women Have Always Been the Underdog Heroines of Programming
The first programmers were women. Those familiar with female influence in tech most often point to two names: Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace. Like all female software engineers, both Lovelace and Hopper brought a unique, essential perspective that helped grow and shape modern computing. They offer diverse opinions that encourages open communication, empathy and analytical thinking. In the 1800s, Lovelace, for instance, worked alongside Charles Babbage, the first person to conceptualize a programmable computer. One expert analyzed the letters exchanged between Lovelace and Babbage and found that: “Lovelace and Babbage had a very ‘different qualities of mind’…whereas Babbage focused on the number crunching possibilities of his new designs, Lovelace went beyond number-crunching to see possibilities of wider applications.”
It was Lovelace, for instance, who suggested that the Analytical Engine could be used for more than just numbers. Just look how beautifully she describes the revolutionary punch card mechanism:
“We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”
About a century later, after Pearl Harbor, the Navy recruited Hopper to build computers. She was a leader in furthering innovation computer development field. As author Kurt W. Beyer points out, her pivotal mark was her advocation for open source ideology and inter-operational computing languages, versus closed-source protection by intellectual property law:
“‘It is in our earnest plea,’ she wrote to ACM, ‘that we receive comments both mild and violent, suggestions and criticisms, as soon as possible.’ By broadening participation during the development phase, Hopper increased the odds that the computing community would freely adopt the resultant language.’
Today Hopper is lovingly referred to as the mother of COBOL, as the first to push for a programming language that was readable as English instead of computer jargon.
But these two programming heroines are just the tip of the iceberg.
In the 1940s, historian Nathan Ensmenger explains that most people generally thought that software programming was “women’s’ work,” consisting of plugging in numbers and shifting switches (like secretarial filing). Hardware engineering was considered more manly, according to the Smithsonian. But the field was so new. People didn’t realize that these women would rise to the occasion and become the cornerstone of computing. They’d even become experts on how to improve functionality and solve tough programming tasks.
As the war went on, the demand for smart mathematicians to calculate weapon trajectories using computers grew. The US military recruited women as “Math Rosies” for ballistic research. Some women even went on to work on bigger machines, like the ENIAC.
Jean Jennings Bartik was among six women who helped build the ENIAC, and were mentored by John Mauchly. Men may have built the hardware of such machines, but it was women like Bartik who laboriously debugged every vacuum tube and learned how to make the 6-foot machine work–sans books or even chairs. Plus, the mission was secret, there wasn’t much opportunity for public recognition for their work. It was so secretive that they couldn’t even see the computer they were working on until security clearance came through. Still, even after the ENIAC was finally announced:
“They all went out to dinner at the announcement,” she says in a talk at a computer history museum. “We weren’t invited and there we were. People never recognized, they never acted as though we knew what we were doing. I mean, we were in a lot of pictures.”
Interestingly enough, here’s how renowned Grace Hopper pitched programming to women in Cosmo magazine, circa 1960s:
“[Programming is] just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
It makes sense — she wanted to appeal to the maternal side of women, since that was most valued at the time. But, in reality, Hopper was aiming to fill a huge demand to work through complex problems by smart women with an aptitude for math and numbers. Unfortunately, these female programmers or “Computer Girls” never really got the credit they deserved through time.
It’s Hard to Be What You Can’t See
Whether or not the world recognizes it, smart, ambitious women have always been and always will be the cornerstone of computing. From its inception to new frontiers, software requires diversity from its engineers. Among immeasurable impact, female software engineers can help open up lines of communication, broaden viewpoints and bring a level of creativity and empathy that’s essential to innovation. Let’s stop focusing only on the bleak diversity numbers, and start highlighting the empowering stories of triumphant women who pioneered innovation–not just for the recognition–but to help shape our tech-driven world today. As our very eloquent HackerRank Ambassador Anjan Kaur says:
“Software engineering is too interesting to leave just to men.”
Want to take action to help bring more women to engineering? Get involved.
Women’s Cup is an all-woman online hackathon happening October 10th. Developers will solve coding problems to challenge themselves, develop their skills and win prizes! Companies who sponsor the event will obtain a list of the top female engineers at the end of the contest.