A brief history of women in IT


In the last few decades women have come a long way in the workplace and the technology is starting to see more and more women! So, let’s take a look at the history of women in IT…

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was one of the earliest pioneers of computing. When she was 17 she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating machine called the Difference Engine. He asked Ada to translate a french test relating to his new invention, the Analytical Engine. Not only did she translate it she appended notes sketching out several early computer programs and vision for the general-purpose computer and its future uses.

100 years later Alan Turing was inspired by Ada Lovelace’s work and in the 1970’s the U.S. Department of Defense named its new programming language ‘Ada’ in honor of her contribution.

World War II and computers

During World War II women were in demand and put to work with computers becoming codebreakers. One of the most famous women was Joan Clarke who worked on cryptanalysis, and helped to break the Enigma code with Alan Turing.The Computer Girls

Grace Hopper also made a great impact to computing during this time. She invented one of the first modern programming languages, COBOL, which revolutionised computing in business. In a Cosmopolitan magazine titled The Computer Girls, Grace Hopper stated ‘programming is just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it… women are ‘naturals at computer programming.’

Unfortunately in the 1980’s men were taking over the up and coming software and computer industry - women seemed put off by if as they often saw it as solitary work.

The downfall...

In the early 1980’s the percentage of women taking computing degrees started to fall. Here are some pinpoints to why this might be:

Initially women were given the roles of working with computers because men were interested in hardware. As software became more complex men started gaining positions in programming and the perception of computing changed becoming more prestigious.

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Alongside this, computers and gaming were marketed as ‘toys for boys’ forming the stereotype of the male geek. Programmers such as Mark Zuckerberg reinforced this stereotype and the male-oriented, computer programming culture has a significant impact on dissuading women from entering the computer science industry, even today.

This led to the likes of Professor Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley, who had to adopt a male name in order to succeed after setting up her own software company who mainly employed women.

Are things on the up?

But don’t worry, it’s not over for women yet… there are signs of change!

Many companies are accepting this is an issue and are taking action with groups such as the Stemettes to help get women into the tech industry. We are now starting to see fantastic female role models in leading technology companies around the world, like Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

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A timeline of notorious Women in IT:

1840s

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

First Computer Programmer


1890s

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Instrumental in discovery of the cepheid variable stars. Evidence for the expansion of the universe.


1920s

Grete Hermann

Grete Hermann

Published foundational paper for computerised algebra.


1940s

Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Litcherman, Betty Jennings and Fran Bilas

Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Litcherman, Betty Jennings and Fran Bilas

Original programer of ENIAC


1950s

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Calculated trajectories and launch windows for NASA missions.


1960s

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper

Worked on Univac and compiler-based programming languages including COBOL.


1970s

Erna Schneider Hoover

Erna Schneider Hoover

Created a computerised switching system for telephone call traffic and earned one of the first software patents ever issued.

Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway

Co-wrote the book on VLSI which lead to today's microprocessors containing millions of gates and billions of transistors.

Irene Grief

Irene Grief

First woman to earn a PhD in computer science from MIT. IBM Fellow who has pioneered collaborative technologies.


1980s

Radia Perlman

Radia Perlman

Invented Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) enabling the creation of the internet.

Adele Goldberg

Adele Goldberg

Co-developer of Smalltalk and pioneer of graphically based user interfaces.


1990s

Anita Borg

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Founded Systers community for women computer scientists and co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Frances Allen

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First women to receive ACM's A.M. Turing Award and a pioneer in the field of optimising compilers.


2000s

Deborah Estrin

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Pioneer in the field of embedded network sensing. Currently Professor of Computer Science at Cornell NYC Tech.

Helen Greiner

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Co-founder of oRobot Roomba. Applied the robotic technology that she worked on at Jet Propulsion Lab to commercial usage.


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