History of women’s contribution in computing

History of women's contribution in computing

Whatever genetics evolutionary psychology might be proving about differences between genders, there has not been any evidence whatsoever showing that these biological differences are cause for something as specific as interest in computer science.

A history lesson on computer science, not often taught in Computer Science classes: women were the first software engineers until men actively pushed them out.

Since the 18th century, women have developed scientific computations, including Nicole-Reine Lepaute prediction of Halley's Comet, and Maria Mitchell's computation of the motion of Venus. The first algorithm intended to be executed by a computer was designed by Ada Lovelace who was a pioneer in the field. Grace Hopper was the first person to design a compiler for a programming language. Throughout the 19th and early-20th century, and up to World War II, programming was predominantly done by women; significant examples include the Harvard Computers, code-breaking at Bletchley Park and engineering at NASA. The "soft work" that had been dominated by women evolved into modern software. Many women continued to make significant and important contributions to the IT industry.

In the 21st century, women held leadership roles in multiple tech companies, such as Meg Whitman, president, and chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Marissa Mayer, president, and CEO of Yahoo! and key spokesperson at Google.

As technology and practices altered, the role of women as programmers has changed, and the recorded history of the field has downplayed their achievements.

But, the field of work largely invented by women. Women continue to play a vital role in those fields and numerous initiatives have been launched to boost their participation. From programming languages to robotics to interaction designs, women have been pioneers in the evolution of computing. But what’s surprising is that only a few women enter computing as a career today.

Here are the most famous and inspiring women role models in tech history.

Let's know them -

Nicole-Reine Etable de la Brière Lepaute was one of a team of human computers who worked with Alexis-Claude Clairaut and Joseph-Jérôme Le Français de Lalande to predict the date of the return of Halley's Comet. They began work on the calculations in 1757, working throughout the day and sometimes during mealtimes. Their methods were followed by successive human computers. They divided large calculations into "independent pieces, assembled the results from each piece into a final product" and then checked for errors. Lepaute continued to work on computing for the rest of her life, working for the Connaissance des Temps and publishing predictions of solar eclipses.

In the early 1800s, One of the first computers for the American Nautical Almanac was Maria Mitchell. Her work on the assignment was to compute the motion of the planet Venus. The Almanac never became a reality, but Mitchell became the first astronomy professor at Vassar.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer by designing the first computer algorithm, and explaining how it would work on Babbage’s proposed (but non-existent) Analytical Engine.

After the Civil War in the United States, more women were hired as human computers. Many were war widows looking for ways to support themselves. Others were hired when the government opened positions to women because of a shortage of men to fill the roles.

Anna Winlock asked to become a computer for the Harvard Observatory in 1875 and was hired to work for 25 cents an hour. By 1880, Edward Charles Pickering had hired several women to work for him at Harvard because he felt that women could do the job as well as men and he could ask them to volunteer or work for less pay. The women described as "Pickering's harem" and also as the Harvard Computers, performed clerical work that the male employees and scholars considered to be tedious at a fraction of the cost of hiring a man.

In the early 1920s, Mary Clem he terms "zero check" to help identify errors in calculations. The computing lab, run by Clem, became one of the most powerful computing facilities of the time.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which became NASA hired a group of five women in 1935 to work as a computer pool. The women worked on the data coming from the wind tunnel and flight tests.

During World War 2, in 1942, Hedy Lamarr invents the frequency-hopping technology that would later allow the invention of wireless signals like Wifi and Bluetooth.

Jean Bartik (December 1924 – March 2011) was among the first computer programmers who developed a technology known as software. She majored in mathematics at the Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. She was tasked with manually calculate ballistics trajectories for the Army Ordnance at the facility ( The University of Pennsylvania to work at the Aberdeen Proving Ground). While at the facility, she was selected to be among the first group of women programmers for the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.

Evelyn Boyd Granville ( in 1924) was an African-American educator and mathematician who became the only second black woman to hold a Ph.D. in mathematics. Granville joined IBM in 1956 and was responsible for developing computer software that examined satellite for the Mercury space programs. Due to the great demand for scientists and mathematicians in the early 60s, Granville relocated to Los Angeles in 1960 to conduct research on calculating orbits for the Computation and Data Reduction Center of Space Technology. She later worked on the Apollo Project at the North American Aviation where she created computer programs for use in trajectory analysis.

In 1952, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper created one of the world’s first compilers (in her spare time). She envisioned code to use English language-based instructions, and her programming language design work led to the creation of COBOL, used to this day.

Radia Perlman ( in 1951) – ‘The mother of the internet’ - She created the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which is a crucial part of the internet’s underlying foundation.

A truly inspirational female role model, Mary Kenneth Keller (1913-1985) was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Her bold contribution made computer use and the study of STEM subjects more accessible and appealing to women across the US and the world.

Jean E. Sammet, born on March 23, 1928, in New York City, is a retired programmer and computer scientist. She is best recognized for her work in the FORMAC, the first popular used system for manipulating non-numeric algebraic expressions. She supervised the first scientific programming group for the company, Sperry Gyroscope (1955-1958).

Katherine Johnson ( in 1918) is a mathematician who made significant contributions to the United States’ aeronautics and space programs. When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson talks about the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, born in 1914, was an educator and pioneer in computer science. She is one of the first women, and probably the first woman to earn a Ph.D. degree in computer science in the nation. She is known for developing the computer language BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The language allowed anyone who could master the language to be in a position to write custom software.

Erna Schneider (born June 19, 1926) is a prominent mathematician popular for developing a computerized telephone switching method. Her invention replaced the then hard-wired, mechanical switching equipment, and is considered to have revolutionized modern communication.

Frances E. Allen, born on August 4, 1932, is an American computer scientist. She is known for spearheading most developments in the field of optimizing compilers. She is recognized for her achievement in seminal work in compilers, parallelization and code optimization. Allen also played a role in intelligence work on programming languages as well as security codes for The National Security Agency (NSA).

Melanie Rieback (26 October 1978) is a computer scientist and the co-founder and CEO of Radically Open Security, the first non-profit computer security consultancy firm. She is famous for her work regarding the security of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.


Today, girls and young women interested in computer science can turn to new role models for inspiration. Tech leaders such as Yahoo President Marissa Mayer, Anita Borg Institute CEO Telle Whitney and IBM Chairman Virginia “Ginni” Rometty all have degrees in Computer Science and are helping reverse stereotypes and increase the presence of women in the profession.

So, all these factors do tell us is that biology was never a relevant factor for women’s innate interests in the field.


Photograph by Gorodenkoff