Remembering the forgotten women

Remembering the forgotten women

TECHNOLOGICALLY SPEAKING  Despite claims of empowerment and equality, there are very few women in top positions at major tech firms. And this may be pointing to a gender bias from centuries ago. Nick Bilton finds out.

While spending the summer of 2007 in Aspen, Colorado, Walter Isaacson and his wife, Cathy, spent much of their waking moments hounding their daughter to finish her compulsory college essay. Finally, after hearing enough from her nagging
parents, Betsy Isaacson locked herself in her bedroom until she emerged with a completed two-page essay.

“Congratulations, Betsy,” Walter recalls saying as they stood in the living room. “What did you write it about?” “Ada Lovelace,” she replied. This was followed by a long, awkward silence. Walter, who was just beginning work on a biography of Steve Jobs, could not recall who Ada Lovelace was. “She’s one of the women who has been written out of the history of computing,” his daughter replied. While some in tech know of her, Ada, who lived from 1815 to 1852, is far from a
household name.

It’s no secret that people are often erased from the history of big-tech
companies. It’s so prevalent in Silicon

Valley that it is known as “The Creation Myth.” But what may come as a surprise is the number of women who played a pivotal role, but who are now forgotten. That is one of the central themes in Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Unlike his previous books, all biographies of individuals, his new work is about groups and how the greatest innovations were all shaped by them.

In many respects, the book could have been called “The Collaborators.” Each chapter reinforces the core premise that Walter made after 15 years of research: That every technology innovation, whether programming code, transistors, personal computers or the Internet, was built by groups of people (usually by
borrowing from past ideas). But while a number of the men have become celebrities, most of the women are lost in a distant fog.

Ada’s story
Ada Lovelace’s role in tech, for example, is so paramount that her story is the
opening and closing chapter. An English mathematician and writer, she wrote the first-ever computer algorithm, put forth the idea that humanities and technology should coexist and dreamed up the concept of Artificial Intelligence. In her day, she was all but ignored, too.

In 1843, when Ada’s seminal computing notes were presented to Scientific
Memoirs, an English scientific journal of the day, the editors pushed back and told her colleague Charles Babbage that he should “manfully” sign his name in lieu of hers. But Ada is only the first of many women excluded from the annals of computing history.

One infuriating moment in Walter’s book tells the story of ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer, built during World War II to calculate the firing trajectory of artillery. As Walter tells it, a prominent dinner was held on

February 14, 1946, at the University of Pennsylvania to celebrate the public demonstration of ENIAC before the media, but none of the women who
programmed ENIAC, including Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder, were invited. Instead, the two women took the train home alone on a cold night while the men celebrated. “Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration,” Jean later said.

What the numbers say
The exclusion of these women has not only reinforced stereotypes about women and technology, but has arguably had a self-fulfilling effect. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women. By 2010, that number had fallen by half to 18 percent. Now just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they plan to major in Computer Science.

This is sadly visible at major tech
companies. At Google, men make up 83 percent of engineering employees. Of Google’s 36 top-ranking executives and managers, only three are women. At
Apple, male tech employees account for 80 percent of the workforce. And at Facebook, 85 percent of the company’s tech workers are men.
Reshma Saujani, founder and chief

executive of Girls Who Code, which aims to close the gender gap in computer
science and technology, agrees. “If women had been more prominently talked about in computing, both in the history books and schools, we literally would not have the lack of women programmers that we do today...It’s about role models. You can’t be what you cannot see.”

Part of the problem, Walter writes in The Innovators, is how the creation myth seeks to make heroes out of individuals, rather than the group. And when the
contribution of the collective is ignored, it is usually a man who gets the credit. “Most of the great advances of the digital age were done collaboratively,” he said. “There is no light bulb moment in the garage when someone comes up with a new idea.”

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