October 22, 2014
According to a recent article at NPR.org, in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 40% of computer science students were women. Today, it is closer to 17%. Unfortunately, very little is known about what caused the culture shift that saw women dropping out of STEM fields in great numbers, and today if you were to ask a computer scientist, there is a good chance that he or she might not know that some of the world’s first and best computer scientists were women.
Until recently, women have largely been prevented from pursuing careers outside of the home (especially in careers that were considered inappropriate for women like medicine and science), and today women are still in the minority in many of these fields. While we must keep this in mind to understand the degree to which most women have faced prejudice and oppression in our history, it is not necessarily accurate to understand our society in this way as it might cause us to oversimplify the actual positions of many women who were able to achieve success in science and technology.
In fact, though it is true that many women in history have faced extreme prejudice in their pursuit of higher learning, women of higher social class, especially beginning in the 19th century, often had much greater access to a diverse education. Thus, many women were able to work around the prejudice in their culture in order to pursue academic and scientific careers.
Later, in the early 20th-century, while many women tried to break into math and science, most were relegated to jobs that were considered lower level and routine. Thus, it would not have been unusual to encounter a woman whose job title was “computer.” Only some were able to gain access to the support and resources that were necessary for them to get recognized for their contributions to their fields.
But of course, this small sample of women who were able to pursue STEM careers does not negate the amount of prejudice that most women would have faced. Yet, these women were able to begin the process of breaking down the barriers of prejudice and misinformation that kept so many convinced that women could not be scientists.
Today, Ada Lovelace is recognized as the author of what is effectively the first ever computer program. In 1842, Lovelace, who by this time had already established herself among the ranks of the top mathematicians and engineers of her age, was asked to translate a paper by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea. In the process of translation, Lovelace made many notes and annotations on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine that are today recognized as an “early model for a computer and Ada’s notes as a description of a computer and software” (Wikipedia). Ada Lovelace is frequently used today as a symbol of the potential of women in technology careers, and has been honored in many ways, including a day of recognition on October 14.
Grace Hopper is today recognized as one of the most important developers of computer language and modern computer functionality. She is credited for developing the first compiler for a computer language at a time when, she claims, most people believed that a computer was not capable of much more than arithmetic. Her pioneering work in computer languages led to the development of COBOL, which was designed based on her idea that computer languages should not be so dissimilar to written English.
Mary Somerville was an active member in the scientific community of her era and established herself as a strong voice in the mission to improve public awareness of the importance of scientific subjects. She made her name as a science writer, performing the valuable task of “translating” highly academic scientific and mathematical language into texts that would be useful to a wider public. Joanna Baillie praised Somerville as “one who has done more to remove the light estimation in which the capacity of women is too often held than all that has been accomplished by the whole Sisterhood of Poetical Damsels & novel-writing Authors.”(Wikpiedia).
Reflections on Women in Academic Fields
It is interesting to note that for many of the women who are considered pioneers in science and technology, it was considered noteworthy that they had chosen not to pursue an education heavy in literature and the arts (as though these were the specialties of women and as though women were not similarly prevented from pursuing careers in these fields). For example, Ada Lovelace’s mother specifically designed her education to be heavy in math and science so that she would not become a poet like her father (Lord Byron), as though STEM fields and poetry were opposite extremes and to learn one was to ignore the other. Similarly, we see Mary Somerville praised specifically for her dissimilarity to women who write novels.
By the 19th and 20th century, women authors were becoming more prevalent, but just a generation or two before you would have found far fewer known women authors to choose form. As with anything, our societal assumptions are likely to change between generations, but it is interesting to note that, not only have we historically made it difficult for women to work at all, but we have compounded this with the difficulty of making certain careers doubly more difficult to reach. For example, when at the turn of the last century you might have encountered more women studying math, it would have been likely that many of those women were training to become teachers.
Teaching is still a women-heavy career, but at that time it was one of the only fields that many women could choose if they did want to study STEM subjects. As we continue to address the problems of gender bias and lack of diversity in STEM fields, it would likely be beneficial for us to make a study of the ways our cultural assumptions (and the evolution of those cultural assumptions) have created these very particular niches.
For example, while today many institutions are specifically targeting women for STEM careers, it is interesting to note that 76% of all public school teachers are women, while only about 36% of graduate students in math are women. The first woman in America to get a Ph.D. in Math was Winifred Edgerton in 1886. She was one of only a small handful of women to receive a Math Ph.D. by the turn of that century.
It has been 128 years since Edgerton completed her degree. Women now represent the majority of college students, but are still well in the minority of students in most STEM fields. It becomes easy to see how deep these cultural assumptions can go, but this makes these standards that much harder to challenge.