August 2, 2021

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The Mothers of Invention: Women Who Blazed the Trail in Technology

The Mothers of Invention: Women Who Blazed the Trail in Technology
The Mothers of Invention: Women Who Blazed the Trail in Technology

It’s easy to imagine where we would be without women in technology.

We’d be poorer for it.

With Mother’s Day upon us, I couldn’t help but think once more about the stark employment figures I shared in my International Women’s Day blog just a few weeks ago. Millions of women have involuntarily left the workforce at a much higher rate than men during the pandemic—with roughly one third of women in the U.S. aged 25-44 citing that childcare was the reason for that unemployment.

Reflecting on this further, I thought about the women in technology who’ve left their positions during this past year. It’s a loss of talent and capability that’s set back decades of advances by trailblazing women who not only shine in their field yet also do so in male-dominated realms of study, research, and employment.

So as we look ahead to recovery, we should also look back. By celebrating just a few of the women in technology who shaped our world today, women who truly are “mothers of invention,” perhaps we can remember just how vital women are in our field—and how we should double down on our efforts to welcome them back.

Margaret Hamilton—The software that ran the moon landing

Imagine a time when the term “software engineering” wasn’t recognized, even though it was crucial to us landing on the moon.

Such were the days when Margaret Hamilton began her work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a job to support her family while her husband went to law school at Harvard. This was in 1959 and would introduce her to Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, and put her on the path to help humanity set its first footsteps on the moon.

It was her work and her code that developed a software-driven system that warned astronauts of in-flight emergencies, an advance she credits her young daughter for inspiring, as recounted in this interview:

Often in the evening or at weekends I would bring my young daughter, Lauren, into work with me. One day, she was with me when I was doing a simulation of a mission to the moon. She liked to imitate me – playing astronaut. She started hitting keys and all of a sudden, the simulation started. Then she pressed other keys and the simulation crashed … I thought: my God – this could inadvertently happen in a real mission.

I suggested a program change to prevent a prelaunch program being selected during flight. But the higher-ups at MIT and NASA said the astronauts were too well trained to make such a mistake. Midcourse on the very next mission, Apollo 8, one of the astronauts on board accidentally did exactly what Lauren had done. The Lauren bug! It created much havoc and required the mission to be reconfigured. After that, they let me put the program change in, all right.

Karen Spärck Jones—The intelligence behind search

When you search online, you have this woman to thank.

A true pioneer, Karen Spärck Jones worked at Cambridge, during which time she developed the algorithm for deriving a statistic known as “term frequency–inverse document frequency” (TFIDF). In lay terms, TFIDF determines how important a word is relative to the document or collection of terms in which it is found. Sound familiar? It should, as her work forms the basis of practically every search engine today.

Spärck Jones remained outspoken with regards to what she referred to as “professionalism” in technology. This had two layers: the first being the technical efficacy of a solution, the second being the rationale for even doing it in the first place. In her words,

“[T]o be a proper professional you need to think about the context and motivation and justifications of what you’re doing … You don’t need a fundamental philosophical discussion every time you put finger to keyboard, but as computing is spreading so far into people’s lives you need to think about these things.”

Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper

Her vision for computing and her hands-on work led to development of COBOL, a programming language still in use today. Driving that vision was the belief that human language could be used as the basis for a programming language, making it more accessible, particularly for business use. The result was the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which was later developed into COBOL, a language that is estimated to be used in 95% of ATM card swipes.

During her time as a naval officer, she helped transform centralized Defense Department systems into smaller, distributed networks akin to the internet we now know and use. At her retirement near the age of 80, she went to work in the private sector where she held the role of full-time senior consultant until her passing at age 85. This 1983 profile of her, aired when she was 76, is certainly worth a watch.

Radia Perlman—Internet Hall-of-Famer

Quite plainly, Perlman’s work paved the way for the routing protocols that underpin the modern internet.

Prior to Perlman’s work, as networks grew and accordingly became more complex, data would often flow into loops that prevented them from reaching their intended destination. Enter her creation of the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which can handle large clouds of computers and network devices. While its since evolved, the concept of an adaptive network remains squarely in place.

Another advance of hers was introducing computer programming to young children aged 3 to 5 back in the 1970s. While working at MIT’s LOGO Lab, she created TORTIS (Toddler’s Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System), which used buttons from programming and allowed for experimentation with a robotic turtle that would follow a toddler’s commands. In the abstract for her paper that documented the work, she emphasized what she felt was a vital point, “Most important of all, it should teach that learning is fun.”

Getting Involved

These women have led and inspired, and likewise it’s on all of us in technology to build on the advances they made possible through both our work and the workplace cultures we foster—particularly as we begin our recovery from this pandemic.

One of the many reasons I’m proud to be a part of McAfee is our Women in Security (WISE) community. It’s truly a forward-thinking program, which we introduced to enrich and support women in the tech sector through mentorship programs and professional development conferences. It’s one of the several, tangible ways we actively strive for a vibrant and diverse culture at McAfee.

Another powerful voice for women in tech is AnitaB.org, which supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation. A full roster of programs help women grow, learn, and develop their highest potential.

And for looking forward yet further, there’s Girls Who Code, which is building the next generation of female engineers and technologists. Their data shows why this is so vital. They found that 66 percent of girls aged six to 12 show interest in computing, but that drops to 32 percent for girls aged 13 to 17, and then plummets to only 4 percent for college freshmen. Accordingly, they support several programs for school-aged girls from third grade up through senior year of high school, help educators and communities launch clubs, and advocate for women in their field through their work in public policy and research.

And that’s just for starters. For an overview of yet more organizations where you can get involved, check out this list of 16 organizations for women in tech—all of which help us realize a better world with women in technology.

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