“Women in IT” – a topic which gains momentum on days like this. Inequality, stereotypes or lower salaries are keywords we immediately think of. While they are important to acknowledge, they’re only one side of the medal of “Women in IT”. In fact, IT would not have been possible without women. A brief look at history and what it teaches us.
We all agree: Modern IT is dominated by men. But it hasn't always been like that. In fact, some of the most important computing pioneers were women. Such as Ada Lovelace, known for her work on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond calculation. In 1842, she created the first algorithm to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer in history.
Ada Lovelace in 1843 or 1850. Daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, cropped.
Another example are Jean Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas and Kay McNulty who programmed the first all-electronic computer called ENIAC in 1946. ENIAC laid the foundations for the modern electronic computing industry.
Ruth Lichterman, Marlyn Wescoff and Jean Jennings Bartik (from left to right) are programming the ENIAC, the first all-electronic computer, in 1946.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
We could also take Grace Hopper who invented the first compiler in 1952. This led to the creation of one of the first high-level programming languages. Without Grace Hopper, programming as we know it today would not exist.
Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard around 1960. Smithsonian Institution, cropped.
We could also cite Gertrude Blanch, Hedy Lamarr or Radia Perlman, among others. There are numerous examples of women who were crucial for the development of IT. Without women, today’s IT would not have been possible.
In the first few decades of the history of computing, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. Computer science back then was a female-dominated area, and computing was considered “girl’s work”, as an article from the “Cosmopolitan” from 1967 shows.
Cosmopolitan, April 1967. Image via Nathan Ensmenger, cropped.
But in the mid-80ies, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science plunged. How come? What happened with women in IT?
Among the most important contributing factors was the rise of personal computers – and that they were marketed as toys almost entirely to men and boys. With the following effect: Boys were twice as likely to be given a computer by their parents. And if parents bought a computer for the family, they put it in a son’s room. Schools and universities back then contributed their part in cementing that image.
Over time, the idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It defined who geeks were, and it created the techie culture we have today. A perfect example of how powerful storytelling is.
As a result, the pioneering IT work done by women had mostly been forgotten by the end of the 80ies. According to popculture, science and society, computers were a male domain. Take hit movies such as “Tron” (1982), “War games” (1983) or “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984): It was always young men who were the computer nerds.
180 years fast forward from Ada Lovelace, we have several women at the top of Swiss IT companies: Marianne Janik, CEO of Microsoft Switzerland, Yvonne Bettkober, CEO of AWS Switzerland, and Gabriela Keller, CEO of Ergon. Or myself. I am sure the list will grow in the upcoming years.
As different as we are – something crucial unites us: We have all taken the path less travelled. Such as Yvonne Bettkober, who grew up in an African township and is mother to three adult sons – and CEO of AWS Switzerland. Or myself, daughter of Spanish migrants and mother to two boys as well.
Foreigner. Woman. Mother. IT. Against all odds.
So, what does this teach us?
Our brief lesson about “Women in IT” teaches us very clearly that IT is only possible with men and women. That both are needed, with all their common and complementing strengths. It also teaches us that it is up to us as well to shape the discourse and with that, the world we live in – without, of course, neglecting social or economic factors which also contribute to the lack of women in IT today.
Who will change it if we don’t?
I would like to conclude my article with a short video by Nike that was launched at the 2019’s Oscars. Narrator of the video is tennis icon Serena Williams:
In this sense: Love IT. Reclaim IT. Be crazy. Be you.