Posted by Zachary MacHardy

Talking about women in computer science can be a bit of a downer, so I figured it might lighten the mood a bit and open this post with a bit of a game.  The rules are simple:  Go to the Wikipedia page on the “History of Computer Science,”and count the number of times women are mentioned.  It’s okay.  I’ll wait.  Alright, you back? Truth is, that wasn’t a very fun game, was it? At any rate, (At the time of this writing) here’s the answer (Drum roll): 1 time!  Did you spot where?  I’ll go ahead and quote it here:

Just chillaxin at Harvard, doin some computing.

“Before the 1920s, computers (sometimes computors) were human clerks that performed computations. They were usually under the lead of a physicist. Many thousands of computers were employed in commerce, government, and research establishments. Most of these computers were women, and they were known to have a degree in calculus. Some performed astronomical calculations for calendars.”

Oh cool, degrees in calculus!  They were known to have them!  That’s right y’all: the place of women in the history of computer science is, according to the Wikipedia narrative we all know and love, as predecessors to the literal objects that we know today as computers.  This certainly would be a disheartening story, were it actually representative of the part women have played in computer science.  Luckily for us, this isn’t exactly the case.  Truthfully, despite rather distressing rates of under-representation, women have taken an active and vital role in the development of modern computers, and continue to do so to this day. Just to name a few:  Grete Hermann, who did foundational work on computerized algebra; Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL and writer of the first compiler ever for an electronic computer; Mary Allen Wilkes, inventor of the first minicomputer OS; Roberta Williams, a pioneer of adventure gaming and developer of King’s quest; Frances Allen, first female recipient of the Turing award, famous for her invaluable work on compiler optimization.  Each of these women has done invaluable service to the field.  But before any of them had even been born, before the first computer had even been manufactured, the very first computer program the world had ever seen had already been written, and by a woman to boot.  On that note, then, let me introduce you to the mother of computer programming, the author of what is widely acknowledged as the first computer program, the namesake for the programming language Ada, and general all-around smarty pants: Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace: A Badass

Augusta Ada Byron was born in England on the 10th of December 1815, to Lord George Gordon Byron (Yes, that Lord Byron), and Anne Isabella Milbanke.  Ada never knew Byron, since he opted to leave her and her mother while she was only a month old, then proceeded to kick the bucket while she was nine. Understandably, this disappearing act did little to endear Lord Byron to Ada’s mother, and, in an attempt to ensure that none of the poetic insanity of the father took hold of the daughter, Ada was schooled in mathematics and science from a very young age.  She quickly proved adept in her lessons, and by the age of seventeen had been noted by the prominent mathematician Augustus De Morgan (of De Morgan’s laws) as having the potential to become a “mathematical investigator, perhaps of first rate eminence.”

Ada soon began to attend Court and met many prominent personages of the time, among them Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and importantly, Charles Babbage.  She married William King in 1835, and in 1838 gained the title of “Countess of Lovelace.”   Lovelace and Babbage maintained a correspondence for many years, and, noting her mathematical prowess, Babbage dubbed her the “Enchantress of Numbers.”

It was in 1842 that the work for which Ada is so well known began.  Originally, Ada was to produce a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s notes on Charles Babbage’s proposed “Analytical Engine,” the first Turing-complete design for a mechanical computer.  But the translation work was quickly supplanted by the addition of a lengthy (significantly longer than the translation itself) collection of notes of her own design (which are available for your perusal here, if you’re up for a bit of a dry read) detailing the hypothetical workings of the analytical engine.  Buried deep within these notes, in “Note G”, Ada details what is widely recognized to be the very first computer program, geared toward the algorithmic calculation of Bernoulli numbers.  It is likely that even beyond this translation, Ada had an active hand in the development of the analytical engine, but little is known of the further extent of her influence.  Regardless, her design of the first computer program and her astute observations on the future of computer utility beyond mathematical calculation had a profound impact on computer science (She even predicted that electronic music might be composed via computers.  In the nineteenth century!).

Unfortunately Ada didn’t live to see the construction of the Analytical engine.  She passed away in 1852 at the age of 36, due to medical complications related to the treatment of uterine cancer.  But her work was not forgotten.  A programming language commissioned by the US DOD in the 70’s to replace the hundreds of languages previously in use was named Ada in her honor.  The British Computer society awards the Lovelace medal annually to those who have advanced work in Information systems.  Annually, Lovelace is honored in a celebration of Ada Lovelace day, intended to raise awareness of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Certainly her work, as well as the work of many other women in computer science, has not gone unrecognized, Wikipedia references or no.

The Dire State of Digital Diversity

                But visibility of these contributions to those outside the field is low.  The situation of women in computer science is a dire one, despite the invaluable contributions of various women to the discipline.  We are facing a demographic crisis, as computer science is one of the very few disciplines which has become gradually more male-dominated over the last 30 years.  A recent study by the Computing Research Association puts the percentage of female recipients of Bachelor’s degrees in computer science at around 14%; this is certainly a far cry from the figure of nearly 40% participation taken in the mid-80s.  The question of why participation by women has declined is a complex one, and certainly one which requires a reevaluation of how we as a society choose to socialize our children, among other things.  But what is not in doubt is that this dire imbalance needs to be addressed – The lack of women in the discipline is not only embarrassing for the computer science community but detrimental to progress.  It is not a question of whether or not brilliant women have been dissuaded from entering the discipline, but, unfortunately, a question of how many.

Way to castrate Turing, Britain

Though the focus of this post is on participation by women in computer science, I would be remiss to conclude without addressing the overwhelming heteronormative and cisgendered biases also present.  By all rights, computer scientists should be natural allies in the fight for queer rights; perhaps the most brilliant, influential man in the history of computer science, Alan Turing, committed suicide after being forced to undergo chemical castration by the British Government for that most heinous of crimes: being homosexual.  This despite the fact that his work was invaluable to the British in breaking German ciphers during World War 2 (way to go y’all).  The designer of the instruction set for the enormously successful ARM processor was Sophie Wilson, a transgendered woman.  Lynn Conway, another transgendered woman, was the inventor of generalized dynamic instruction handling, an important advance in computing efficiency used by most computers today.

This is not even to mention the dearth of black, latino, (or really non-white, non-east or southeast Asian) computer scientists.  Diversity abounds among the great minds who have contributed to the field of computer science as well as among those who may yet contribute.  Yet the canonical image of the computer scientist is decidedly male, heterosexual, cisgendered, and one of a very small set of ethnic backgrounds.  This is an injustice to the myriad of brilliant contributions made by those who do not fit into this restrictive stereotype.  There is nothing inherently male, inherently white or Asian or Indian or straight or gay or cis or trans or anything about computing.  So let me end this post with a plea.  Don’t be fooled by the stereotypical image of the computer scientist.  Encourage your sister, your daughter, your friend, your mother, your roommate, anyone of any gender or sexuality or race or age or creed to seriously consider the discipline.  Don’t let the preconceived notion of who is well suited to computers and who is not influence the future of computer science.  Don’t let a computer scientist tell you that, well, there’s a certain set of people who just “get” computers.  That’s bullshit.  This is a discipline whose efforts have had far-reaching effects the world over as the world advances into the digital age.  The computer science community has enough white, straight, men in its ranks; We will need a diversity of experiences and opinions if we are to have any hope of contributing meaningfully to progress for us all.