In honor of Mother’s Day, we thought it would be fitting to take a look at some of the most influential and important people in the history of tech, who were all, gasp, Moms!
The fact that a large portion of the foundation of tech was established by moms may come as a surprise, given the male-dominated image the scene has today. But tech as an all-boys-club is a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the early 1980s, about half of all programmers were women. For reasons that still remain murky, that number has been a nosedive ever since and over the years, the scene has evolved into one big frat party.
The current stats are sad; Today women make up more than half of all college graduates but less than 30% of all tech workers. Less than 20% of Google’s technology staff is women. Though Facebook can boast the amazing mom Sheryl Sandberg as COO, females make up 17 % of their staff. And as you could probably guess, at the testosterone-fueled Uber, women make up less than 15 % of the tech workers. Most alarming of all; According to the Harvard Business Review, 50% of the women in STEM (science, technology mathematics and engineering) will eventually leave due to toxic work environments.
Here at Reason, we’re hoping to see the tide change; We have lots of moms on staff – our lead web developer and our QA team leader are moms with a bunch of kids and some of our Sales and marketing teammates are mommies too. And we all hope that the world of tech will be a more accommodating and accepting place for our own daughters. So this Mother’s Day we’re giving thanks to our moms for all they have done to get us to where we are, as well as these incredible women whose stories follow below.
The amazing moms of tech
She might have looked the part of a Victorian aristocrat (her father was famed poet Lord George Byron) but she was anything but cookie-cutter. Though women were considered far too delicate to deal with complicated theoretical concepts in the mid-1800s, Ada’s mother placed her talented daughter on a strict regimen of daily math and science tutors.
While still was a teenager, she began working with mathematician Charles Babbage, considered the inventor of computers. With his influence, she began publishing works in which she laid the foundation for coding in scientific journals under her initials, A.A.L. Lovelace is widely considered to have written the first computer program and is credited as being the very first programmer.
Born in Maryland in 1883, young Edith’s parents both died when she was all of twelve years old, leaving her and her eight siblings orphans. Determined to excel regardless of her personal situation, she was accepted to Vassar College and studied math and astronomy. She went on to become the first woman to earn a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT.
During WWI she took a job at AT&T, managing a group of women “computers” whose job it was to make calculations for the Transmission and Protection Engineering Department. In 1921, she got a job at General Electric as the first female engineer in the US, where she invented the Clark Calculator, a device used for simplifying equations for electrical engineers. She then became the first female professor of electrical engineering in the US and her textbooks on Power Engineering are still considered among the most influential today.
Good graciousness, this lady was truly unbelievable, especially when you look at the incredibly wide range of fields upon which she left her indelible mark. Grace studied Mathematics and Physics at Vassar in the 1920s and then went on to pursue a Master’s Degree and a subsequent Ph.D. in Math from Yale University.
While teaching as an associate professor at Vassar, she enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 where she began programming Mark I computers. After the war, she stayed on at the Navy as an officer and began conducting research at Harvard on Mark II and Mark III computers. She left the Navy in 1949 and moved to the private sector where she laid the groundwork for COBOL, one of the most foundational computer languages.
Never one to sit around, she returned to active Naval duty when she was 60 years old to research the development of a standardized communication method between different computer languages. When she retired at the age of 79, she was the oldest remaining officer in service.
Dr Erna Hoover
Talk about multi-tasking moms, Dr. Hoover came up with one of her most influential inventions while she was in the hospital, delivering her second child!
Born in 1926, and after spending her childhood reading biographies of women who broke the proverbial mold, such as Marie Curie, Hoover went on to earn a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Math from Yale. She began working at Bell Labs in 1954 where she is credited with devising a computerized telephone system that “revolutionized modern communications’’, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
She remained at Bell for over 30 years, working on research for anti-ballistic missile systems, AI, and software. Now in her 90’s, she has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is on the Board of Trustees at The College of New Jersey.
You *might* recognize her name as the quintessential Silver Screen siren from the 1940s and 1950s but Hedy Lamarr was anything but just another pretty face.
An immensely talented actress, Hedy found herself bored with the glamorous roles in which she was cast. To cure her boredom, she became an inventor. Without any sort of formal training, she started studying aerodynamics and during WWII she invented a frequency-hopping system that would keep Allied radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed or tracked. This system is considered the backbone for modern WiFi and Bluetooth systems.
Hedy holds the notable distinction as the only person to have her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her numerous inventions and to have been honored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Katherine Johnson is one woman who has squarely proven that the sky isn’t the limit. She was born in West Virginia in 1910, at a time when education mandatorily stopped for all African American children after eighth grade. Not to be deterred, young Katherine’s parents sent her and her siblings study at West Virginia State Institute where she graduated from with a degree in Mathematics and French. She went on to become the first African American woman to attend graduate school at WV University.
In the early 1950’s she was hired by NASA as a mathematician. In interviews she noted that though there were subtle reminders of segregation, she didn’t feel it much “because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job.”
It wasn’t always so rosy, though. She tells the story of one supervisor who was known to make things difficult for the females working at NASA. At the time, women were not allowed to put their names on reports. She and a male colleague had been working on an almost finished report when he suddenly had to leave. Her supervisor wanted the report to be submitted before her colleague returned and has a near fit when she submitted it with her name on it. This was the first time that a NASA report was published under a woman’s name.
Most remarkable of all: Without Johnson, Americans might have never made it into space. After calculating the flight path for Alan Shepard’s space flight, when it John Glen’s turn to go into orbit, he refused to fly until he knew that Johnson had checked out the path to ensure that it was correct. She retired from NASA in 1986 with countless awards for her achievements in science and math under her belt.
Fixing the “women in tech” problem
So what would the incredible women who helped define the world of tech think about today’s disheartening stats? They would probably tell you what your mom says any time things seem to be at their bleakest: “So the situation looks bad, huh? Sure, it feels like they don’t want you, you don’t belong. Well, what are you gonna do? Are you going to let them get you down? Get out there, suck it up and show them what you’re made of!”
Thank you, moms; Without you, we wouldn’t have the guts to turn this thing around.