Women, in Computer Science?

There's been much written and discussed recently about the fact that Computer Science is still a bastion of sexism, and everyone seems to agree that we need to get more women into the field (see previous posts from me, Kaitlin, and Amber on the topic).

But easily forgotten in this dialog is the fact that many of the early computer programmers actually were women. Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) is generally credited as having written the first-ever computer program, designed to run on Charles Babbage's machine (later, when the Department of Defense developed a new programming language to superscede all others, they named it Ada, in her honor).

In the 1950's Grace Hopper developed COBOL, which became the leading programming language of its day. She even coined the term "debugging" when she was working on a Harvard Mark II computer in 1947 and her associates found a moth stuck in a relay, causing a system problem.

By the 1970's, when I first took computer classes, COBOL was the first programming language we learned (yes, I am that old). Even today, Grace Hopper's COBOL language still powers software running at various enterprises, including the Pentagon. 

In fact, the programmers who worked on the U.S. military’s first computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), were all women. Those six women, Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman, have been inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame.

But here's my favorite bit: In 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine published an article titled “The Computer Girls,” which said that programming was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are naturals."

That recruiting pitch didn't work all that well, apparently, and the field soon became dominated by men. 

But fortunately that is now beginning to change again. Women programming computers? It's back to the future, baby!