These days, much of the conversation around women in coding revolves around their disproportionate representation in the field. Women only make up about 26% of the computing workforce and 19% of computer science bachelor degree-holders. To address this imbalance, there are a number of excellent organizations and coding schools working to increase the number of women working in tech – which we’ll discuss in a bit. However, let’s first take a look backwards, to the early days of coding and examine how profoundly women influenced the emerging field.
A Brief History of Computers and Programming
Charting the history of any technology is complicated. Inventors almost always build on earlier developments and technologies, so there is often some disagreement on who claims the title of “Inventor”. That said, most historians of technology will credit Charles Babbage as having invented the first automatic digital computer between 1833 and 1871. He called the invention the Analytical Engine. Once the computer, the instrument of coding, was in existence, the first computer code could be written. This was accomplished by Ada Lovelace, in 1843.
Famous Women in Coding
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
The First Coder
Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer in 1843 when she designed and published a program to calculate the Bernoulli numbers on the newly invented Analytical Engine.
Ada was born and raised in England and studied mathematics with private tutors from a young age. She met Charles Babbage in 1833 and began to work closely with him on developing the Analytical Engine. She published her own thoughts as a series of Notes appended to an English translation she wrote of an article about the Analytical Engine. (The original article, written in French, was by Federico Luigi Menabrea). In her Notes, Ada not only published the first computer code, but also made a number of valuable observations about the future abilities and use cases for computers. She theorized on how the device might be used to manipulate non-numerical inputs like letters and even music. You can read more about the logic of Ada’s code here.
Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Holberton, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Bilas and Ruth Teitelbaum
The ENIAC Programming Team
The 20th century brought the invention of the first digital computer (Babbage’s invention was mechanical). This computer, called the ENIAC, was built by John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania for the U.S. army during WWII. It’s purpose was to compute complex mathematical problems (most to do with ballistics and missile trajectories) quickly. The computer could be programmed to compute any number of problems by using cables, plugboards, and switches. Six women, known as the ENIAC Six or the ENIAC Programmers, were selected in 1945 to carry out this work. Working in three teams of two, the women developed specialized programs for the ENIAC to solve mathematical problems faced by army scientists.
Marlyn Meltzer (1922-2008) and Ruth Teitelbaum (1924-1986) made up one team of programmers. They joined the ENIAC project from previous Army work as human “computers”, which required painstaking manual calculation of ballistics trajectories, weather predictions, and other projects. On the ENIAC team, they developed programs that could make these calculations in just a fraction of the time. Ruth went on to train many other programmers in ENIAC programming while Marlyn retired from programming after the war.
Frances Spence (1922-2012), who was studying to be a math teacher at the time, and Kathleen Antonelli (1921-2006), who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland as a child, made up the second team. They were recruited shortly after they both graduated from Chestnut Hill College with degrees in mathematics.
Jean Bartik (1924-2011) and Betty Holberton (1917-2001) made up the third team, which gained the most public visibility since they led the 1946 public demonstration of ENIAC functions. Jean continued working on the ENIAC after the war, as a part of a team that converted the computer into a stored program machine, which made it simpler to use. She later worked on the computers BINAC & UNIVAC I. Betty also developed programming and hardware for the UNIVAC I and later helped develop the coding languages COBOL and FORTRAN.
While these six women were the lead programmers of the ENIAC, they also had about 80 other female programmers working under them, completing vital work for the government. Their work remained largely hidden for decades until programmer Kathy Kleiman ‘rediscovered’ them as an undergraduate researcher in the 1980’s. Kathy went on to found The ENIAC Programmers Project, dedicated to recognizing their accomplishments and solidifying their place in history.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Invented the First Compiler, Developed First English-like Coding Language
Grace Hopper may be one of the most famous and celebrated woman coders. She has a coding bootcamp, a Yale residential college, an annual technology conference, a hackathon, and numerous awards named in her honor. This recognition is well deserved considering her innumerable contributions to computer programming!
While the ENIAC team was programming for the army at Penn during WWII, Grace Hopper was programming the electromechanical computer MARK I at Harvard and making calculations for the U.S. Navy. She did this by punching program instructions on to tape that was fed into the machine. She also wrote the user manual for the MARK I.
After the war, Hopper helped develop the MARK II and the MARK III computers. She famously coined the terms “computer bug” and “debugging” when she discovered that a malfunction in the MARK II was due to a moth being lodged inside the machine. In 1949, Hopper left Harvard to join the team that had developed the ENIAC at Penn. There, she helped develop the UNIVAC I computer. From there, her technological contributions just kept flowing.
She developed the first Compiler in 1952. A compiler is a program that translates source code (easily read and written by humans) to machine code (easily read and implemented by computers). This development laid the foundation for all present-day coding languages.
She and her team then developed the first coding language that used English-like commands. Previous coding commands were abstract (for example, “DXCH K”), whereas Hopper’s new language, Flow-Matic used familiar English words (commands included “COMPARE A WITH B”, and “TRANSFER A TO C”). Hopper aimed to make coding accessible to all people, not just academics, saying, “I kept calling for more user friendly languages. Most of the stuff we get from academicians, computer science people, is in no way adapted to people.” In 1959, the new language COBOL (COmmon, Business-Oriented Language) was developed, based on elements of Flow-Matic, and Hopper became it’s most ardent advocate. She also developed COBOL validation software and its compiler program.
From 1967 to 1977 Hopper served as director of the Navy Programming Languages Group and helped standardize coding throughout the Navy. By the time she retired as a rear admiral at the age of 79, Hopper was the oldest serving officer in the U.S. armed forces. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Annie Easley (1933-2011)
NASA Computer Scientist, Developed Software for the Centaur Rocket Stage
Easley began her career at NASA in 1955 as a human “computer” (like Marlyn Meltzer and Ruth Teitelbaum before her). As ‘non-human’ computers began to gain relevance at NASA and in the scientific community, Easley took up using languages like FORTRAN and SOAP for her computations. She began working on nuclear-powered rocket systems and eventually became one of the lead software developers on the Centaur rocket stage.
Throughout her 30+ year career in programming and rocket science, Easley also worked for civil rights causes. Before working at NASA, Easley helped people in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama study to pass the Jim Crow literacy test required to vote. She spoke out against discrimination she encountered at NASA – being denied educational financing that was offered to other employees and being cropped out of publicized photos – and eventually became an Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor at NASA.
Mary Allen Wilkes (b. 1937)
Designed Operating System for the Personal Computer
By the 1960’s, computers were used to accomplish all kinds of tasks, not just critical government calculations. About 1 in 4 computer programmers were women and at the forefront of this group was Mary Allen Wilkes.
Wilkes graduated with a Philosophy degree from Wellesley College in 1959 and quickly found work as a programmer at M.I.T. While computer science students were rare, Wilkes had a strong background in logic from her philosophy studies, which she used to pass M.I.T.’s applicant aptitudes tests. In 1961, Wilkes was placed on the team of engineers developing the LINC, which would become the first personal computer. While other parts of the LINC team put together the computer’s hardware, Wilkes designed it’s operating system and wrote the code for its software.
The LINC computer went to market in 1964 and sold mostly to scientists and doctors – for $43,600 each! Mary Allen Wilkes continued working in programming for several more years before switching career tracks to become a lawyer.
Rózsa Péter (1905-1977)
Founder of Recursion Theory
Recursion theory is a key element in many coding operations and is often one of the first principles taught to computer science or coding students. A recursive function is one that calls itself. For example, factorials can be calculated using a series of smaller factorials. You can learn more about this type of function here.
The concept of Recursion Theory was founded by Rózsa Péter in 1932 and published in her paper, Rekursive Funktionen, which she presented at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zürich. Esteemed in her field, Péter published many other mathematical and logical ideas but recursion is the one that put her name on the map and has proven to be a vital foundation for further studies in mathematics, coding, and logic.
Born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1905, Péter’s career had to overcome many obstacles caused by geopolitical instability. She graduated from Pázmány Péter University in 1927 and struggled to find academic work in the following years due to the world-wide Great Depression. She eventually was able to advance to an Editor role at the Journal of Symbolic Logic in 1937 but, was subsequently forced out of the position in 1939 by new anti-Semitic laws. With no employment options, Péter focused on writing a book, Playing with Infinity, which she published in 1943. Many copies of the book were destroyed in the bombings of Budapest in WWII, but the reviews for those that survived gave it high praise.
Following the war, Péter continued to teach and publish. She began to apply her recursive logic to computer programming in the 1950’s and her final book, Recursive Functions in Computer Theory (1976), was entirely dedicated to the subject.
Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008)
First African American Manager at NASA, Expert FORTRAN Programmer
Dorothy Vaughan gained professional prowess for her adept computational skills at NASA during WWII. However, her popularity and name recognition soared to new heights with the release of the film Hidden Figures in 2016. In the film, Octavia Spencer portrays Vaughan as she and her team of mathematicians process data and execute calculations that were vital to the success of NASA’s space program.
Vaughan began her NASA career at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, processing aeronautical research data in the segregated West Area Computing Unit. In 1949 she was promoted to supervisor of the unit, becoming the first Black NASA employee at that level. She was known for advocating for the women working under her – calling attention to those who deserved a pay raise or promotion and working to connect the women with the NASA projects that best matched their individual skills.
In 1958, Vaughan’s unit was desegregated and became the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). With this transition they also began the transition from manual mathematical computations to digital computing. Vaughan developed a speciality in the programming language FORTRAN, which she used to make key contributions to NASA’s space program until her retirement in 1971.
Xia Peisu (1923-2014)
Developed China’s First Digital, Electronic General-Purpose Computer
Xia Peisu studied electrical engineering at China’s National Central University in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War. She went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh, carrying out electrical frequency research that was hugely important in radio, television, and computers.
Xia Peisu returned to China in 1951 to continue her research at Tsinghua University and found the country’s academic and technological infrastructure vastly stalled due to the civil war that had only just come to a close. As the Communist Party worked to bring China’s technology up to speed, they recruited Xia Peisu to be a founding member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her task was to travel to the Soviet Union, where she could educate herself on all aspects of computer design and programming, then return to diffuse the knowledge back to her compatriots. In 1956, she published a 1,000-page course manual, which translated Soviet computing concepts for Chinese students.
For the next several years, Xia Peisu worked tirelessly to spread advanced computer skills throughout China, overseeing curriculum development at various universities and holding lectures around the country.
By 1960, the Chinese relationship with the Soviets had devolved and the Soviets withdrew all support for Chinese technological advancement. However, at this point Xia and her team had the skills they needed and were able to develop China’s first homegrown computer model – the Model 107.
For the next several decades, Xia continued developing more advanced computers and other related technologies, like a high-speed processor array. She also continued to lead trainings around the country and founded multiple technology journals. Today she is known as the “Mother of Chinese Computing.”
Margaret Hamilton (b. 1936)
Developed the Software for NASA’s Apollo Spacecraft, Created the Term “Software Engineer”
In 1959, Margaret Hamilton got her first software engineering job (writing code to predict the weather at M.I.T.) before the title of “software engineer” existed. When NASA was planning the Apollo missions to the moon, Hamilton was the first programmer recruited. In 1965, she became the head of the team writing code for the Apollo 11 spacecraft’s two on-board computers, playing a key role in the success of the moon landing. Hamilton introduced the term “software engineer” because she felt that her role wasn’t given as much weight as that of the hardware engineers she worked with. Initially, her self-appointed title was laughed at, until one day, a hardware engineer on the team spoke up to affirm the importance of Hamilton’s software in their spacecraft systems. The title of software engineer is now a thoroughly accepted way to refer to someone who develops software. In the course of her work on the Apollo missions, Hamilton and her team also wrote code that would be used in the development of the portable computer.
After several more years at M.I.T. and additional support of Apollo onboard software, Hamilton went on to start two of her own software companies and developed the coding language, Universal Systems Language, which you can read more about here. Like Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Marsha Rhea Williams (b. 1948)
First African American Woman to Earn a Ph.D. in Computer Science
Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams developed a long-list of academic achievements, first earning a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Beloit College, followed by a Master’s in Physics from the University of Michigan. She taught at Memphis State College and Fisk University and then became a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt, Williams further developed her expertise in big data and search querying. She earned her Ph.D. in 1982, becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the field. You can read more about her dissertation, “The Design of the Computer Assisted Query Language (CAQL) System,” here.
Williams went on to teach at Tennessee State University and University of Mississippi in Oxford, work at IBM, and be a fellow at the National Science Foundation. Along the way, she spoke out to encourage more people of color to study and work in engineering and computer science. At Tennessee State she directed Project MISET (Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology).
She is still a faculty member at Tennessee State and is a leading authority on databases and human-computer interaction.
Hu Qiheng (b. 1934)
Brought the Internet to Mainland China
Hu Qiheng gained prominence in the computer science field as a leader at the Chinese Academy of Science between 1983 and 1996, serving first as Head of the Institute of Automation and later as the vice president of the entire Academy. Her technical specialties are in model identification and artificial intelligence.
After drawn-out discussions with the National Academy of Science, Hu Qiheng persuaded the Academy to allow mainland China to connect to the world wide web in 1994. She oversaw China’s internet induction as the head of the National Computing and Networking Facility of China. Then, in 1997, she founded the agency China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) to administer and continually develop the internet in China. Throughout her career she has advocated for internet access to be brought to all corners of the country.
Coding Bootcamps & Organizations for Women
Women have played vital roles in programming technology at every stage of development and in all corners of the world. From writing programs, to creating software, to educating others, these women (among others!) made it possible for us to code all kinds of programs today.
There are a number of organizations whose mission it is to continue the story of Women in Coding by teaching women to code and supporting them in their tech career development. Take a look at the list we’ve compiled below to learn more!
Skillcrush is a bootcamp provider geared specifically toward women and non-binary students. They offer courses in coding, web development, and design.
Grace Hopper Program
The Grace Hopper Program is a bootcamp program run by Fullstack Academy and geared specifically toward women+. The curriculum is based off of Fullstack’s general course plan and students will learn all of the same skills.
Girl Develop It
Girl Develop It (G.D.I.) is a non-profit organization that holds tech classes for women online and in-person across their five chapter locations. Their courses cover a variety of skill-building and professional development subjects.
Girls Who Code
Girls Who Code makes it their mission to close the gender gap in computer science at the beginning. Through a vast range of formats – online learning, immersion programs, clubs, summer camps, etc. – they bring coding skills to girls in early elementary school through college-age.
Women Who Code
Women Who Code is a professional network of women in coding that provides resources and connection to women across the world. Anyone, from computer science students to experts in their field can join and gain access to job postings, collaborate on projects, and meet women in their field.
Lesbians Who Tech
Lesbians Who Tech is an organization that aims to bring more LGBTQ+ representation into technology fields and foster connections between LGBTQ+ women+ who work in tech. The group holds summits, offers scholarships, and fosters connections.
Flatiron School’s Women Take Tech Scholarship
The Flatiron School is a leading bootcamp provider that is geared toward a wide range of students. They offer a scholarship called Women Take Tech aimed at bringing in more female students.
General Assembly’s See Her Excel (S.H.E.) Tuition Discount
General Assembly is another leading bootcamp provider that is open to all students. They have partnered with Hewlett Packard for their See Her Excel tuition discount that gives women and non-binary students a $1,500 discount on their immersive programs.