Recent disclosures from tech giants like Apple proved our disappointment with how few women occupy programming or technical jobs in today’s world. Google has one of the highest at a sad 17% women. However, this wasn’t always the case.
In fact, the pioneers of computer programming were women, back in a world when the men tinkered with hardware and software was looked down upon, explains Walter Isaacson in his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.
Women like Ada Lovelace, Jean Jennings Bartik and Grace Hopper were all mathematicians who led the way to today’s computer programming. According to NPR:
[Ada Lovelace] envisioned that ‘a computer can do anything that can be noted logically,’ explains Isaacson. Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers…. Bartik was one of six female mathematicians who created programs for one of the world’s first fully electronic general-purpose computers. Isaacson says the men didn’t think it was an important job.
The women joined up with Grace Hopper, a tenured math professor who joined the Navy Reserve during the war. Walter Isaacson says Hopper had a breakthrough. She found a way to program computers using words rather than numbers — most notably a program language called COBOL.
“You would be using a programming language that would allow you almost to just give it instructions, almost in regular English, and it would compile it for whatever hardware it happened to be,” explains Isaacson. “So that made programming more important than the hardware, ’cause you could use it on any piece of hardware.”
By sharing these women’s stories, hopefully more girls will be inspired to enter the technical fields and get those numbers up.