When female tech pioneers were the future

She caused a sensation with her sultry eyes and smouldering beauty. But Hollywood leading lady Hedy Lamarr — a star in the 1930s and 40s — was also the co-inventor of a radio transmitter used to secure wartime military communications that paved the way for mobile phone technology. Lamarr is among a cohort of pioneering women whose technological achievements often go unsung — something many argue needs to change.

While today’s tech superstars are mostly male, in the early days of computer programming, a woman shared the limelight. As Charles Babbage was designing a programmable computing engine, Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, conceived algorithms that would enable Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” to conduct different tasks.

Lovelace took a broad view of computing’s possibilities. “She said that if we could figure out a way of making a science of music, we should be able to feed that into computers,” says Thomas Misa, director of the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not the sort of thing a scientist would say, but computing seems to make advances with people that are a bit visionary.”

Vision is one thing, but it is often conflict that serves as an incubator for technological advances. The second world war was no exception as it created new career opportunities for women. While women worked on farms, in munitions factories and as radio operators, they also became lab technicians.

When American maths professor Grace Murray Hopper left her job to join the war effort, she found herself working on IBM’s Mark I computer at Harvard University. After the war, Hopper, who became a rear admiral in the US Navy, was instrumental in developing the compiler, which translates English instructions into machine code, and the Cobol programming language.

“Her understanding that programmes should be written more closely to natural language in English has laid the foundations for software engineering,” says Shilpa Shah, a Deloitte director who leads the firm’s Women in Technology network.

Other wartime pioneers include a group of women who worked at the University of Pennsylvania on developing what is credited as the world’s first programmable general purpose electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac).

Some have made their biggest contribution not as inventors or computer scientists, but as businesswomen. One example is Dame Stephanie Shirley, who arrived in the UK as a young refugee fleeing Hitler.

In 1962, she established Freelance Programmers, a network of professional women computer specialists. Initially employing only women (a policy she had to change in 1975 following the passing of equal opportunity legislation), the company, later called FI Group, gave women the flexibility to combine work with family responsibilities.

Looking back through history reveals many prominent tech pioneers who were women. But women working in technology’s rank and file were also well accepted in the past.

In the US and much of western Europe in the 1980s, says Prof Misa, women collected almost 40 per cent of computer science degrees. Today, however, the figure is 15 to 20 per cent. “Through the 1980s, computing looked like something of a women’s success story,” he says. “Computing was doing something right in attracting women — and that’s not the case today.”

Many have posited theories for the change. Some suggest that the advent of the personal computer — which was marketed to men and boys — introduced a male flavour to the culture of technology.

Prof Misa says that when US colleges introduced requirements for programming experience of their students, this also created a deterrent. “It was a huge filter that chased women out because, for whatever reason, high school computers labs were taken over by boys.”

However, while gender biases have swept across the US and Europe in recent decades, some parts of the world appear less affected. Minerva Tantoco, chief technology officer for New York City, witnessed this when, in a previous job in banking, she visited her company’s offices in China to find that, on the technology floor, 60 per cent of the staff were women.

“It was proof positive that there’s no reason women can’t be in technology,” she says. “This has got to be cultural. People think it’s normal to be a computer engineer as a woman in many parts of Asia.”

Prof Misa agrees, citing India and Malaysia as examples. “It seems the gender coding gets done in a different way,” and adds: “Computing is seen as a challenging and well-paid field.”

This still leaves large chunks of the world in which women are perceived to be not natural technologists.

Clearly schools play a central role in sparking the interest of girls in so-called Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. But as technology becomes all-pervasive in people’s lives, this should also be the case in education, argues Rebecca George, a Deloitte partner who has been promoting the participation of women in the IT sector since the mid-1990s.

“It’s not just about teaching IT, but engaging teachers to use it in all their subjects,” she says. “We need teachers to be IT literate.”

Civil society groups and non-profits can inspire girls to take an interest. Girl Scouts of the USA has, for example, been incorporating digital technology into activities such as cookie sales.

The organisation’s “Digital Cookie” platform allows girls to create web pages, conduct sales online or via mobile apps, keep track of orders and use interactive tools to learn about budgeting, online security and safety.

For companies wanting to build a pipeline of female technology employees, partnerships with such groups is one way to contribute. Dell, the computer company, and Visa, the credit card company, are partners with Digital Cookie platform, for instance.

Sue Black, an adviser at the UK’s Government Digital Service, says home life also shapes girls’ interest in technology. She founded #techmums, providing workshops for mothers on online security, social media, computing skills and app and web design.

Celebrity role models are also encouraging girls and women to take up coding. For example, model Karlie Kloss has formed a partnership with New York’s Flatiron School Pre-College Academy to encourage young women to apply for a “Kode with Karlie” scholarship, a two-week programme introducing software engineering and web app creation.

If they make progress, they will demonstrate, as Lamarr did in the 1940s, that female success and technological innovation are not mutually exclusive.

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