Women and Computer Science

Typically when I’m researching one of my female subjects for STEM books, I have to hunt hard for women in the early days of a particular field. In the history of sciences, women’s work was often appropriated by husbands or other males. Women scientists spent incredible energy fighting for the right to even attend college. Then they had to fight for jobs and membership into professional societies. They constantly fought for recognition…to be taken seriously. With all these uphill battles, you wonder how they had the energy to discover anything.

Imagine my surprise when I was researching “Gutsy Girls Go for Science: Programmers” to find that not one, but two of the first names in programming belonged to women! In 1843, Ada Lovelace published the first computer program. It was for the analytical engine, a mechanical general purpose computer designed by Charles Babbage.

A century later, Grace Hopper becomes the chief programmer for the Mark I, an electromechanical computer used by the military to program rocket trajectories and solve engineering problems. She wrote the first programming manual—500 pages on the Mark I. Later, she developed the first compiler, a translator that turned human commands into computer-speak. She also led a team to develop an early programming language for business, COBOL.

In 1946, the first electronic computer was created. The ENIAC ushered in the modern age of computing. When it was unveiled, it became a major news story featuring physicist John Mauchly and electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert. The news ignored the ENIAC programmers, but if you look in the background of the photos, you can see some of these six women.

So, how did the face of computer programming become a young white male? In the early days of computing, men were interested in the hardware—the circuits, wires, and drives. But all that changed with the advent of the PC in the 1980s. People realized that the BRAINS for the computer was in the programming…the code. Suddenly, programming became a men’s club.

Research shows that around age 12 both boys and girls have a similar level of interest in computer science. The problem is that females are half as likely to be encouraged to pursue it by both teachers and parents. While females make up 56% of all AP test takers, only 19% take the Computer Science AP Test. While women earn 57% of all undergraduate degrees, only 18% of computer and information science degrees are earned by women.

It’s Computer Science Education Week as I write this. Change is happening, and efforts need to continue. Consider this:

  • Females who take the AP Computer Science exam are 46% more likely to become a Computer Science major.
  • Females who are encouraged in technology and see representations of females in technology are more likely to be Computer Scientists.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that next year will see more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings. At current rates in computer science education, only 30% of those jobs can be filled.

We must continue to expose girls to computer science at all ages. Yes, diversity matters. And yes, this is what’s fair and right. Even more, our future technology depends on the inclusion of females.

About KB Gibson

I am a writer who writes a little of everything--fiction, travel, children's books and articles, copywriting, curriculum.My perfect vacation would be to sit on a beach or look out over the mountains and read books. I never get to read as much as I want.
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