Online Computer Science Degree: Guide to Women in Computer Science
A famous woman in computer science is Melinda French Gates, who, born as Melinda Ann French, earned her bachelor degrees in computer science and economics as well as an MBA at Duke University. She then went on to join Microsoft in the late 1980s, where she met and later married Bill Gates. However, Gates is not the only highly-esteemed woman in the field of computer science at present.
However, today, although women in North America are on parity with men across the board in all general fields of science and engineering, one glaring exception exists: computer science. This was not always the case, for in the 1970s and 1980s, when computer science was in its exciting cutting-edge-yet-nascent stages of growth and discovery, the number of women enrolling in this field were nearly on par with the men. Yet since that time, the number of women choosing to complete a degree and commit to a career in computer science has dwindled. In short, although women have always been involved in and significantly contributed to the field of computer science, it was more the case 30 to 40 years ago than it is today. Why that is has become a source of numerous studies, public discussion, and professional debate. Theories to explain this significant drop in female participation range from the supposed pejorative association of computer scientists and programmers as “geeks” and “nerds” to the macho-male subculture of action computer gaming.
In an ongoing effort to provide the best computer science resources, compiled below is a collection of resource articles and links depicting noteworthy, pioneering women in the field of computer science. This resource is meant to provide students, teachers, and computer science enthusiasts in general with relevant research information.
References and Additional Related Links
- Mills College’s Women and Computer Science is a webpage housing over three dozen online resource links (some defunct) about women and the field of computer science, including academia, science, gender issues, and AI.
- “What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?” is a 2008 New York Times article that explored the declining ratio of women to men computer scientists in North America.
Ada Lovelace: First Computer Programmer and Founder of Computer Science
As mentioned above, women have always played a significant role in computer science. Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), a 19th-century mathematician and daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabelle Milbanke, was the founder of computer science. The first computer programmer who wrote the language code for her close friend Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine, which was the world’s first computer prototype. As recognition of the accomplishments of this “Enchantress of Numbers,” in 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a computer language after her: ADA.
- The History of Women in Computer Science provides a brief synopsis of women in computer science.
- Ada Lovelace: Founder of Scientific Computing details the life and accomplishments of the founder of computer science.
- Wikipedia’s Women in computing article details the current struggle with gender parity within this profession, as well as the contribution of Ada Lovelace.
Additional Women’s Contributions to Computer Science: 1842-Present
Ada Lovelace was merely the first known woman to contribute to computer science. Many women followed her.
Another pioneer was Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), an Austrian-born Hollywood actress, Lamarr was also a scientist who co-invented frequency hopping. Frequency hopping is an early form of what now is called spread-spectrum communications technology. This invention protects radio signals from being corrupted or intercepted and today serves as the basis for all modern wireless network connections technologies.
A number of women are also credited with the original programming and creation of the first general-purpose electronic digital computer in 1946. Called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), that computer owes its existence to six women: Betty Jennings (1924-), Betty Snyder (1917-2001), Marlyn Wescoff (-2008), Frances Bilas (1922-), Ruth Lichterman (1924-1986), and Kay McNulty (1921-2006).
Pioneering Female Computer Scientists: 1949-1983
Yet another pioneer was Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992). Hopper was a mathematics college professor, computer scientist and U.S. Navy Officer. Hopper was a true pioneer in the field of computer science. She was the third person to program the Harvard Mark I computer and was awarded the Naval Ordinance Development Award for her pioneering applications programming successes on the Harvard Mark I, II, and III computers. The first person to invent a compiler for a computer program language, Hopper formed the idea of machine-dependent computer program languages, which resulted in the development of COBOL, an early modern computer program language. Credited with the coining of the term “debugging” due to an actual removal of a moth from an early computer, Hopper was nicknamed “Amazing Grace” and has a U.S. Navy Vessel, the USS Hopper, named in her honor.
In 1962, Jean E. Sammet (1928-) developed the FORMAC (FORmula Manipulation Compiler) programming language. Mary Allen Wilkes (1937-), a computer programmer and hardware engineer who worked on the first minicomputer and ancestor to the personal computer (PC) – the LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer) – and developed its first operating system (LAP). Wilkes is also widely regarded as the first person to use a computer in a private home. In 1968 Barbara Liscov (1939-) was the first woman to receive a Doctorate in Computer Science. Two other notable women in computer science up until 1983 include: Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007), Emeritus Professor of Computing and Information at the University of Cambridge and Dr. Adele Goldberg (1945-) of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and co-founder of ParcPlace-Digitalk, an application development environments company for corporate software developers.
Pioneering Female Computer Scientists: 1984-1993
Roberta Williams (1953-) is a pioneer in video games, specifically graphical adventure games, who co-founded the On-Line Systems Company, which later became Sierra On-Line. Susan Kare (1954-) a graphic designer who in the 1980s created most of the interface elements for the Apple Macintosh, went on to become the original Creative Director of NeXT (the company Steve Jobs formed upon leaving Apple in 1985). Radia Perlman (1951-) is a network engineer and software designer who has made contributions to link-state protocols and security, but is best known as the “Mother of the Internet” for her invention of the spanning tree algorithm, which is critical to network bridges and the scalability of the internet. Irma Wyman (1927-) is known as a leader in digital processing, being the first female CIO of Honeywell, Inc., and one of the only women during the Cold War to graduate with a college engineering degree. Hungarian mathematician Eva Tardos (1957-) won the Fulkerson Prize in 1988 and is a professor at and chair of the Computer Science Department at Cornell University. Shafi Goldwasser (1958-), the RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, is world renown for her work on cryptography and complexity theory and is a pioneer of zero-knowledge and interactive proofs.
Pioneering Female Computer Scientists: 1994-Present
Anita Borg (1949-2003) was a true mentor to women who wished to enter the field of computer science and received both the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award and the Association of Women in Computing’s Augusta Ada Lovelace Award. Jeri Ellsworth (1974-) is a self-taught computer chip designer and entrepreneur who is best known for her invention of the Commodore 64 emulator within a joystick, which was introduced into the marketplace in 2004 and later named the Commodore 30-in-1 Direct to TV. Mary Lou Jepsen (1965-) is the founding CIO of One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and organization with the goal to provide laptops to children living in developing nations and in 1989 was also the co-creator of the first holographic video system. Frances E. Allen (1932-) is a pioneer in optimizing compilers, has done seminal work in compilers, parallelization, and code optimization, and was the first woman to both be an IBM Fellow and be awarded the Turing Award. Carly Fiorina (1954-) is a businesswoman who started her career as a secretary, was CEO of Hewlett-Packard (1999-2005), an executive VP at AT&T, and to-date the first and only woman to run a Fortune 20 company. Meg Whitman (1956-) is a billionaire who served as President and CEO of eBay from March 1998 to March 2008, for which she was named the 8th best performing CEO of the past decade by the Harvard Business Review. Thelma Estrin (1924-) is a pioneer in the field of biomedical engineering and a professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Wendy Hall (1952-) is a pioneer in Web Science, a professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK, a member of the British Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, and the President for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
Without a doubt, women have played a very key role throughout the evolution of the field of computer science. However, the problem of an increasing reduction in the numbers of women in the profession warrants study. Why is this decline taking place?
- GraceHopper.org is a website dedicated to an annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC).
- Yale University has a biography of Grace Murray Hopper, who was an alumna of Yale University.
- The CRN Technology News article entitled “Grace Hopper: Programming Pioneer” discusses the contributions of Grace Hopper to computer science.
- Wikipedia’s article on Grace Hopper outlines her life and accomplishments.
- American University in Bulgaria, Women in the History of Computing Technology details the lives of the key women contributors to computer science, including Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas, Ruth Lichterman, Kay McNulty, Grace Hopper, Jean E. Sammet, Mary Allen Wilkes, Barbara Liscov, Karen Spärck Jones, Adele Goldberg, Roberta Williams, Susan Kare, Radia Perlman, Irma Wyman, Eva Tardos, Shafi Goldwasser, Anita Borg, Jeri Ellsworth, Mary Lou Jepsen, Frances E. Allen, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Thelma Estrin, and Wendy Hall.
A Lack of Women in Computer Science
Numerous writings exist surrounding the mystique of women in the field of computer science. Where women entering the field were once practically on par with men in the 1970s and 1980s, which made up early days of computer science, those numbers have been dropping drastically. As a result, today women still only make up a very small percentage of computer scientists. Theories to explain this significant drop in female participation in this field range from the techie reputation of computer scientists and programmers to the macho-male subculture computer game culture.
- The Shortage Of Female Computer Science Faculty At Stanford University is a Stanford faculty article that cites social awkwardness as the main reason for an extraordinarily low female-male faculty ratio.
- Barriers to Equality in Academia: Women in Computer Science at MIT is a 1983 study prepared by female graduate students and research staff at the Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT that cites negative environmental factors which repel women from the computer science field.
- Evidence-Based Living has an article entitled Why women leave science careers and cite that women prefer fields that involve more human contact, such as veterinary or medical science.
- Cornell University’s Chronicle Online discusses a study by Cornell professors Wendy Williams and Steve Ceci entitled The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls, which concludes that family demands play a large role in why women opt-out of careers in mathematics and science.