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Helene Panzarino: Women who count

Women in Engineering

Helene Panzarino looks back at how women have played a key part in developing technology and their role in its future.

On April 2018, the number of girls choosing to study computer science at A’level dropped below one per cent.

The year before, it was reported that only 17 per cent of people in the tech sector were women.

Alarming and disturbing statistics in themselves, but to add salt to the wound irony is when you consider that – without women – we might not have a tech sector at all.

You could say that women invented computers. In the past, the word ‘computer’ even used to mean “female mathematician” or “women who count”.

It all started with Ada Lovelace – the incredibly clever daughter of the poet Lord Byron – whose mother insisted on her learning maths and science as well as languages.

She wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine that existed only on paper. She is widely attributed with having invented computer science and – although she didn’t work alone – there’s no doubt her contribution was invaluable.

In honour of her achievements, Ada Lovelace Day is held every year on the second Tuesday of October, which this year will be 8th October, so mark this special date in your diaries, but also remember to keep her accomplishments in mind every day.

Early “computers”

Looking into the etymology of the word ‘computer’, some very telling facts reveal themselves.

According to the BBC, the word "computer" comes from the Latin "putare" which means both to think and to prune. By 1731, the word had come to mean someone who did calculations.

In the late 19th century, at Harvard College Observatory in the USA, a large group of workers were employed to analyse images of stars and compare their positions. These workers were women and – because they were brilliant mathematicians – they were called “computers”.

This pioneering work of the computers at Harvard continued into the 20th Century.

Taking a leaf out of Harvard’s book, in the 1930s, NASA began hiring women as “computers”. When war broke out, NASA expanded its computer pool, recruiting many college-educated African American women.

The legacy of Ada Lovelace looked to be gaining some traction and momentum, seeing women take their rightful place at the scientific table.

So what went wrong for tech women?

In post-war Britain, IBM UK measured the time it took to manufacture a computer in “girl hours”, because the people making computers were nearly all women. The British government – the biggest computer employer in the land – declined to give women equal pay as at the time computer work was considered low value.

But then perceptions changed.

It became clear that computers had great potential, that they would be essential in the future. This meant they required managers to decide how they were programmed. But back in the 1960s, women were considered unfit for management.

Tech women still go strong

You’d be forgiven for thinking that was the end for all those women in computing, but you’d be wrong!

In 1962, computer programmer Stephanie Shirley struck out on her own and set up the software company, Freelance Programmers. One of her clients would be Ann Moffatt from the team that programmed the iconic supersonic aeroplane, Concorde. Ann eventually became technical director at Concorde in charge of over 300 home-based female programmers. That is some kind of powerful statement for women in tech!

As technology advanced, by the 1990s, nerds and geeks were cool. However, despite the early key roles for women in the space, the stereotype was distinctly male and so was the US tech heartland, Silicon Valley.

What led to this shift in the landscape is a much longer debate than this piece allows. Perhaps it was the lack of visible role models, or part of the wider problem of girls being less likely to choose maths and science at school. Whatever it was, the reality was that fewer women saw a future for themselves in tech.

One thing we know for sure though, it wasn’t – as one Google employee suggested two years ago – anything to do with differences in the brain.

In a vein of hope and somewhat bucking the trend, in some parts of the world – such as India and South America – women play a much bigger role in IT, than in Europe and North America. This deserves our attention.

Tech can give you a great future

As a result of tenacity and a united voice, thankfully things are changing. We have some great examples of women in tech with:

In banking and finance – the sector where I work – technology is changing the way we do things. There is increasing demand – and the inevitable scarcity – for new talent to help innovate.

More and more, banks and financial services organisations will be looking for talented professionals who already have the skills they need – or who they can train. Gender parity in all areas of financial services has to be the goal.

This represents a new wave of opportunity and potentially gives a whole new meaning to ‘women who count’.