Written by Lauren Kee | Edited by Jaspar Chan | Photo by Isaac Yee
The world fawns over its male computer engineers, but as with most things, we often overlook the involvement of women. I’m sure you have heard of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, or Bill Gates, co-founder and ex-CEO of Microsoft. But how about Ada Lovelace, one of the first ever software engineers in the world, Grace Hopper, creator of the first computer compiler and a leader and survivor of the Second World War, or Margaret Hamilton, one of the first ever software engineers and who helped write the code for the Apollo mission to the moon? Have you ever wondered about those courageous women who are pioneers in their industry? What if we brought together the gender gap between boys and girls closer, allowing both sides to take on the same jobs with the same amount of respect and admiration?
Even though Steve Jobs revolutionized technology and Bill Gates devoted an his life to introduce the use of technology in education, it all started with one of the most honoured women in history – Ada Lovelace. Lovelace had always been a math whiz and was fascinated by science from an early age. Unlike most children back in the day, she was privileged enough to be tutored by numerous tutors. When she turned 17, she met inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage. She soon became intrigued by Babbage’s inventions such as the difference engine and the developing analytical machine, which are computers designed to calculate complex math problems. With Babbage, Lovelace became involved within the computer industry. Soon after, Lovelace received a request to translate an article written by Italian engineer and mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea about the analytical machine. Not only did Lovelace successfully translate it with her amazing linguistic skills, she even added some notes to the article – and these were no ordinary “notes”, but an essay three times the length of the original article. In these notes, Ada was the first to propose the idea that code could handle not only numbers, but letters and symbols as well. On top of that, she was also the first to discuss and theorize on the forever loop, now found in most computer programs, which would repeat a code or process multiple times. Because of this outstanding piece of work, Lovelace is considered one of the first ever computer programmers. Despite this, Ada did not attract any fame until after her death. However, her work and legacy has now received the proper recognition, and remains the foundation of computer programming to this day – there is even a computer program named after her!
Following Lovelace came Grace Hopper (née Grace Brewster Murray). As a child, Hopper enjoyed taking apart and reassembling alarm clocks out of curiosity. When the Second World War broke out, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and was promoted to the rank of a lieutenant after a year. After the war, Hopper remained in the Navy as a reserve officer for 19 years. At the time, she was also a research fellow with Harvard University. Being a mathematical genius and having studied at Vassar College, Hopper became one of the first women to earn a PHD in mathematics at Yale University, where she fell in love with computers and wanted to continue working with them. She moved on to working in various private computer companies, where her ventures would find great success. Hopper and her team created the first ever computer compiler that could translate English instructions into code able to be processed by computers, making it easier for beginners to engage in coding. She improved the coding language so that it was more practical, more similar to conventional English, and more easily accessible. This was the predecessor of what would come to be the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), a coding language now globally used in business. Though she did not invent COBOL itself, she greatly encouraged the adaptation of her computer compiler into what COBOL is today. Because of her status as one of the earliest pioneers in the computer industry, she was later invited to standardize the communication between different computer languages at the age of 60. By the time she finally retired from all work at the age of 79, she was recognized as a loyal and distinguished officer to the American Navy as well as a phenomenal computer genius.
In the last years before her death, she was committed to promoting coding universally, encouraging younger generations and especially girls to step out of their comfort zone and try their hand at coding in the hopes of nuturing a generation of talented female programmers and coders. Hopper, also known as The Queen of Code and Amazing Grace, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 after her death. Former US President Obama described Hopper as the woman who “opened programming to millions more people, helping to usher in the Information Age and profoundly shaping our digital world.”
Finally, perhaps the most respectable woman in modern software engineering is Margaret Hamilton. Having studied mathematics and philosophy at Earlham College, she was later offered a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked on developing a software now widely used to forecast the weather. There, she learnt more and more about meteorology, climatology and astronomy. Whilst working at MIT, Hamilton was involved with the US Air Force in the development of the first ever US defence system to identify enemy aircraft. As she moved between different laboratories at the MIT, she ended up at one that was in charge of providing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with the technology and resources for becoming the top space and flight research institution in the world. There, she led her team in developing the software for in-flight commands and the lunar modules used in the Apollo missions – the first attempt to put a man on the moon. However, her work was not as simple as it may seem to us today. As a working mom, it was already hard enough for Hamilton to work at the MIT as one of the first software engineers. On top of that, women were not welcome in the industry at the time; the term “founding mother” was not a thing, but “founding father” was. In fact, the practice of software engineering then was not even an official learning field or subject; as Hamilton said, “there was no choice but to be pioneers”. Hamilton’s software cleared out the cluttered queue of processing code to allow the machine to focus only on its top priority — landing the aircraft safely on Earth. Without her contributions to the software, the mission may have failed due to a technical communication failure of the overload of unnecessary messages on the computer, putting the lives of the astronauts at risk. This software would lay the foundation for and inspire NASA’s Skylab project, the first ever permanent US space station. This software also propelled the progress of the 12th and 14th through 17th Apollo missions. In 2003, Hamilton was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Space Act Award, with the highest financial prize given to an individual at the time for her sacrifice and dedication to the Apollo mission. Hamilton further expanded her contributions to this field by establishing her own software engineering and computer science companies, Hamilton Technologies. She was also presented with the Medal of Freedom in 2016. As the saying goes, “Behind every great man is a women”. When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon, it was a triumphant moment for him and the world. However, we must be reminded that without the efforts of Margaret Hamilton, the overlooked woman coder working behind the scenes at MIT, his “small step for [a] man” would not have been possible.
In the technologically advanced and constantly changing society we belong in today, it is very important for both men and women to be more dedicated and involved in the current development of technology. Technological marvels such as AI and all sorts of highly advanced personal electronic devices are taking over our world and dominating our lives. But have most people ever wondered about the string of words and numbers that program these powerful devices? There is evidence to suggest that the interest in technology continues to decline significantly as kids grow older, especially in women. According to Girls Who Code, a respectable 74% of girls in middle school in the US express interest in the
fields. However, in college, less than 5% of girls choose to further pursue their interest in computer science and software engineering. Technology, the fastest growing industry in the world, will be where the most innovative jobs are created the quickest in the years to come. But it is quite obvious that this is a heavily male-dominated industry, and that the gender gap must be narrowed.
(Source: Women are Vastly Underrepresented in the Tech Sector, Dave Smith)
Currently, only 1 in 5 graduates in computer science are women and 14% of women work in the STEM fields. In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today, although the number of people working on information technology has multiplied considerably, only 24% of them are women. If we do not take action, the percentage may decrease by an additional 2% in a few years time. Even within the world’s most well respected technology companies in Silicon Valley, we can see a distinguishable difference between the tech jobs offered to men and women. In all of the companies, no more than 20% of the tech jobs are taken up by women. Even though half of the non-tech jobs are women employees, the number of women in the total workforce are not over 40%.
Nevertheless, when given the appropriate resources or chances to code, we should learn and know why we should take them. Coding is the basis to software engineering, robotics and computer science. It is also a brilliant way to develop logical skills, cognitive thinking and creativity. On top of that, coding can improve your perseverance and problem-solving skills. Coding is mostly based on trial and error. A program may have failed 999 times, but succeeded finally in its thousandth iteration. That is when one feels the joy of accomplishment and pride, the most rewarding part of coding. Coding is original, therefore one can do whatever one pleases, even the most bizarre and eccentric of ideas. The process of getting there is the learning process where one can figure out how one wants to program the app, device or software with the given building blocks. Coding is like a puzzle, a construction site, and a 3d-model kit all in one; one can figure his or her way through with the puzzle pieces, constructing something primitive and never done before.
As the world of technology is rapidly advancing, the world should be more involved in improving and developing it. Coding and software engineering is not only a subject to be learnt at school, but a hobby that should be pursued and a useful lesson of life skills that can be learnt. Courageous role models like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton have fought for their rights and persevered throughout the long journey with obstacles constantly thrown at them, pioneering and setting the foundation for all our technological accomplishments today. They inspire and motivate us all, showing us all that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and that success is attainable for all who persevere, always within their grasp at the end of a rocky and arduous road. These ladies have struggled but persisted, defying the sexist stereotypes and assumptions that world once made about them. In our world of variety in incredible skill and unique talent, we must balance the gender ratio in computer science to 50/50 and allow all people to be treated equally and given equal opportunities to help with the development of technology, whether they be men or women.