How Women Shaped the World of Coding

woman holding a laptop near large computers

Quite often, coding and computing are seen as being a man’s field. Looking at the figures, it’s not hard to see why. At present, only 12-24% of people in tech jobs are female, and women made up just 18% of the number of graduates with a computer science degree back in 2015.

But it wasn’t always this way. Long before programming was even a recognised industry, a few incredibly talented individuals broke the mould by paving the way for what we now recognise as the foundation of modern computing – and many of them were women.

The history of women in coding

In 1843, decades earlier than even the most basic technological advancements such as the lightbulb or the radio were invented, the world’s first ever programmer wrote a functioning algorithm for a computing machine. Her name was Ada Lovelace.

As the only legitimate child of the poet of Lord and Lady Byron, Lovelace had advantages that many other women of her time did not. Even so, she exceeded in her academic achievements to levels far greater than those of her peers. The computer she worked on was Charles Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’, which, unfortunately, was never built due to a lack of funding – but was later proven to work with her code.

While Babbage’s name is synonymous with the invention of the computer, however, Lovelace’s so often gets forgotten. It’s the same story for many other female coding pioneers, too.

If we jump ahead a century to the 1940s, we find women like Hedy Lamarr, a Vienna-born actor who invented frequency-hopping technology that eventually paved the way for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and Jean Bartik and her team of five other women, whose code for the ENIAC project became the foundation for software programming (and who were not invited to the dinner to celebrate its success). How often have you heard their names in relation to coding and computer technology?

Then, in the 1950s, Grace Hopper created the world’s first compiler – in her spare time, because nobody believed in it enough to pay her for it. Her work made the coding process quicker and more accessible for people, and eventually became one of the first programming languages: COBOL.

By the 1960s, computing was a much more established industry, and coding was actually seen as “women’s work” because, similar to secretarial or typist roles, it was clerical. It wasn’t until the profession was realised to be incredibly valuable (and, therefore, lucrative), that men began taking over. In order to make the industry more palatable to men, however, it had to be unappealing for women. Thus, campaigns began to oust women from the programming world.

From that point on, almost all the way up to the modern day, computing has always been painted as a male industry. Technology as a whole (video games, cars, gadgets) is frequently geared towards men, STEM professions are still marketed primarily towards men, and even fictional programmers are almost exclusively portrayed by male figures (giving rise to the computer nerd stereotype).

Of course, it’s very difficult to pinpoint one precise factor that led to the decline of women in computing. Instead, we must acknowledge that there were a number of things that contributed to disillusionment amongst women towards coding and programming, and that these things have been perpetuated for far too long.

But, now we know roughly where we went wrong, we can reshape the industry to be welcoming and accessible for all genders.

The future of women in coding

Undoing decades of systematic exclusion isn’t exactly easy, but it isn’t impossible, either. Positive steps have already been taken to encourage women to pursue careers in programming, namely: eliminating the stigma that boys are naturally more attuned to STEM professions than girls, offering grants and other incentives for female applicants in higher education schemes, and teaching the history of women who paved the way for technology as we know it today.

Women were once at the forefront of the computer technology industry, and they can be again – it might just take a little work.

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