Silicon Valley is unquestionably a boys’ club. And the number of women in computer science has been declining. In 1985, approximately 15,000 women and
Silicon Valley is unquestionably a boys’ club. And the number of women in computer science has been declining. In 1985, approximately 15,000 women and 27,000 men earned bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences. By 2010, over 35,000 men earned computer science degrees, while only 7,500 women did the same.
But the world’s first computer scientist was a woman.
Despite British society’s disdain for “bluestockings,” or intellectual women, the poet Lord Byron’s daughter, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace became a mathematician, and is known as the world’s first computer scientist.
Lovelace met Charles Babbage in 1833 and developed a friendship with him that led to the development of the Analytical Engine, an early computing device. A woman way ahead of her time, in September 1843, she published an algorithm designed to run on this Analytical Engine. Today, her work is recognized as the first computer algorithm, and she is identified as the first ever computer programmer.
Cybersecurity has its roots in the science of cryptology, the science of coding and decoding messages for the intelligence community, and the field boasts its own woman pioneer. Elizabeth Smith Friedman was a “cryptanalyst,” or codebreaker, and a pioneer in United States cryptology. She graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a degree in English literature in the early 20th century, and was recruited by millionaire George Fabyan to work on the mythical Shakespearean Bacon Cipher at his Riverbank think tank.
Although the Bacon Cipher proved to be a hoax, Friedman and her husband became experts in code breaking, and by 1917, they offered the only expertise in the country capable of deciphering coded messages during World War I. Friedman further developed the art of counterespionage through her work with the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard while on the trail of rum runners during Prohibition, a talent that was used to track Nazi spies during World War II.
Female mathematicians were frequently on the cutting edge of computer science, because much of the work involved typing, which was perceived as women’s work. During WWII, over 8,000 women worked as codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the headquarters for British Intelligence operations, deciphering enemy messages. These women worked with Alan Turing to crack the Nazi cipher machine, Enigma. Because their work was classified until the 1970s, the families of most of these women never knew the extent of their daughters’ extraordinary contributions to the Allied victory.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, United States Navy, served as a WAVE (Woman Accepted for Volunteer Service) during WWII. “Amazing Grace” was a mathematician assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard in 1944. Following the war, she was instrumental in the development of the UNIVAC I computer, the development of a capability to “compile” mathematic code into computer language, and the COBOL programming language.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson of the 2017 film “Hidden Figures” were computational experts at NASA during the 1960s. Johnson was described as the most high profile of “computers,” the word used to describe human mathematicians who would solve the equations that determined various aspects of space travel.
Vaughan realized that NASA’s first IBM mainframe computer would displace human computational experts, and that, as a black woman, she would be among the first to lose her job. She responded to this impending technological disruption by teaching herself and her colleagues to program in the Fortran programming language. Her foresight led her team of women to become the first computer programming team at NASA.
Meanwhile, in 1961, software pioneer Mary Allen Wilkes was assigned to the LINC project, one of the world’s first interactive personal computers. By 1967, there were so many female programmers that Cosmopolitan published an article titled “The Computer Girls.”
Today, one of the United States’ leading experts in cybersecurity is Theresa Payton, the CEO of Fortalice Solutions. Payton served as the first female chief information officer of the White House during the George W. Bush administration.
Prior to the introduction of the home computer, both men and women expressed an equal interest in computer programming, but as home computers became more common, cultural bias began to interfere, with boys being encouraged to engage with the computers, and girls being told they were not wired for this technical field.
Cyberattack is the most significant challenge facing global business today, making cybersecurity skills highly sought after. Over 4 million cybersecurity jobs are unfilled globally, and women make up only 20 percent of the workforce. As cyberthreat continues to escalate, more perspectives are needed to combat the threat, and women bring a different perspective from men. As history has taught us, women built much of the foundation for this industry.
Despite what society’s cultural biases suggest, cybersecurity and computer science are definitely women’s work!
Dr. Tamara Schwartz, worked on the stand up of Cyber Command and was the 2011 Information Operations Officer of the Year. A retired Lieutenant Colonel, she now serves as an Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity and Business Administration at the York College of Pennsylvania.