The Untold History of Women in Software Development

Albert Pałka
Published in
9 min readMay 21, 2017


Author: Urszula Humienik

We know IT has a diversity problem. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), women hold only 25% of U.S. professional computing occupations. The situation is not much different worldwide. You’d think IT was a male-dominated field, and you’d be right. But if you’d believe that women had no place in this field, you’d be wrong.

Did you know that women have been an important part of computer science and software engineering development? Computers and the Internet as we know them would not exist without their contributions. Read on to find out more.

Ada Lovelace — the first computer programmer?

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was born in 1815. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Lady Byron, wanted to impede any possibly innate poetic tendencies, so she made Ada study mathematics. And Ada saw poetry in math.

In 1832, she met Charles Babbage. He showed her his paper explaining the working of a computational machine he planned to build and asked her to write about his work for a scholarly journal. She not only wrote about the machine, but also the possibilities she envisioned for it that Babbage had never even considered. She went as far as to write an instruction set using a complicated sequence of numbers, which could be used to load into the machine. This is considered the first algorithm.The machine was never built, but Ada Lovelace’s paper was used to build the first computer a century later.

ENIAC women — more than “Refrigerator Ladies”

In the 1930s female mathematics majors were quite common. During World War II, the US assembled a team of over 80 women called “Computers.” Their role was to manually compute complex ballistic trajectory equations for the Army.

After the war, six brilliant young women — Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Snyder Holberton, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum — were selected to figure out how to program the ENIAC machine. The ENIAC women knew nothing about Babbage or Lovelace. They didn’t use programming tools, languages or manuals, because none existed. They used logical diagrams and tables to program; and when they were finished, ENIAC could run a ballistics trajectory in seconds.

ENIAC became famous. Despite this, the women behind the software have remained mostly unknown. There were plenty of photographs with the ENIAC women, but most thought they were just “Refrigerator Ladies” — there to make a boring machine look good. At that time, people also focused more on the invention and hardware, the software was considered auxiliary and less important.

“Not only did they program the ENIAC, the first all-electronic, digital computer during WWII without manuals or programming languages, but they dedicated years after the war to making programming easier and more accessible for all of us who followed,” said Kathy Kleiman, who spent years researching these extraordinary women. Kleiman is the woman behind the documentary, The Computers, which tells the story in the women’s own words of how they programmed the first all-electronic, programmable computer.

World War II — women as computers

During WWII, mathematicians were needed, but men were unavailable, so women were recruited. These women were known as “computers,” because at that time it wasn’t a name for a machine but for women who did calculations by hand.

As a result, WWII led to a wave of technical innovations, including the first electronic digital computers. One of the first digital computers was the Z3, built by Konrad Zuse in Germany; it was destroyed in the war. Most subsequent developments were made in the US and the UK. In the US, these were the Mark I and ENIAC computers.

WREN Colossus operators

In the UK, the Colossus was built to break code. It was part of the Allied effort to decipher secret communications sent by Japan and Germany. A top-secret codebreaking facility was located at Bletchley Park, near London.

The operators of the Colossus were carefully selected from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (popularly known as Wrens), the women’s branch of the Royal Navy, similarly to the hundreds of other workers at Bletchley Park. The Colossus enabled decoding thousands of messages. It is believed that the intelligence from Bletchley Park shortened the war by at least two years and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The Wrens did not become programmers like the ENIAC women, but the Colossus could theoretically be programmed.

Due to its confidential function, the Colossus was kept top secret for 30 years, which deprived those involved with the project of receiving credit for their contributions and from reaping the full benefits of their work. In honor of those that had worked at Bletchley Park, the Colossus was rebuilt and unveiled to the public at The National Museum of Computing.

Mathematical Tables Project

The Mathematical Tables Project was a product of the New Deal. Its task was to produce mathematical tables for use in various fields. It utilized female human computers to perform calculations. Later, it was used during WWII to aid in building the ENIAC.

Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was an American research and development program, which led to the development and later dropping of the atomic bomb. Women played a crucial role in various aspects of the Project. Few knew what they were really working on, as the project was veiled in secrecy. Some knew they were working on something called “the gadget.”

Women did many of the calculations for the Project. The Mark I computer, which Grace Hopper had helped program, was adapted for the Manhattan Project to calculate differential equations.

Grace Hopper — Mother of COBOL, Queen of Software

Grace Hopper was born in 1906. Just like Ada, her mother had an effect on her education. Hopper was a curious child with an analytical mind, and her mother didn’t dissuade her when she took apart clocks to figure out how they worked. Her mother encouraged her interests and didn’t want to limit her based on gender. Her father also ensured all his children, regardless of sex, received the same education. Thus, Hopper received a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1928 from Vassar College, and then a master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics and physics from Yale in 1934, becoming one of a few women to earn such a degree.

During WWII, she joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and became part of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), where she was one of the Harvard IBM/Mark I computer programmers. After the war, she remained in the Navy Reserve as a contractor working on the Mark II and Mark III computers. She was awarded the Naval Ordinance Development Award for her work on the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III computers.

Hooper was a true visionary, and could envision how a wider audience could use computers. She helped co-create the UNIVAC I, for which Frances Snyder Holberton — one of the ENIAC women — wrote the C-10 instruction code. It was the second commercial computer produced in the US and played an integral role in the Apollo missions. During her time working on the UNIVAC, she created something that was revolutionary at that time — a compiler. In programming, a compiler transforms source code from one language to another.

Thanks to her influence, programmers today use words instead of numbers when coding, which makes coding languages more practical and accessible. She was on the committee that developed the programming language COBOL, which stands for Common Business-Oriented Language, and it continues to be used in order-processing business software to this day.

Grace Hopper has received many honorary degrees and awards for her accomplishments and contributions, which have included awards where she was the first woman to receive them. In 2016, President Barack Obama honored her posthumously with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Space programs — women put men in space

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) also had a shortage of manpower during WWII, so they began recruiting women. This trend continued after the end of the war and the agency shifted focus to space. Between 1943 and 1980, somewhere between several hundred to over one thousand women, including 80 African-Americans, were part of the human computer space program at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Are you noticing a pattern? Computing was once considered “women’s work,” too tedious for men. Only now are we beginning to recognize the contributions these human computers have made.

Thanks to these women, who calculated things like flight trajectories and helped safely return the crew of Apollo 13, space travel became a reality. Some names behind NASA’s successes include: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Margaret Hamilton, Christine Darden, and Annie Easley.

Margaret Hamilton — the moon landing wouldn’t be possible without her

In 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Hundreds of thousands of people worked on that mission, but it was Margaret Hamilton’s code that was critical to Apollo’s success. She developed the onboard guidance software, which included a priority system that shed less important tasks. Without this software, computers would not exist.

She was a programmer at MIT in the 60s, where she and her colleagues wrote code for the first portable computer. She pioneered the concept of software engineering, and became director of the Software Engineering Division at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed the computer for NASA. She worked on all the Apollo manned missions and several unmanned ones.

In 1986, she founded and became CEO of Hamilton Technologies Inc., where she created the Universal Systems Language (USL) and its automation, the 001 Tool Suite, which is “an integrated systems engineering and software developing environment for automatically generating ultra-reliable software systems, models, and simulations.”

In 2003, NASA honored her with an Exceptional Space Act Award recognizing the value of her innovations. And in 2016, President Barack Obama selected her as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is awarded to those that have made a particularly praiseworthy contribution, for her work on the development of software for the Apollo missions.

Barbara Liskov — modern computer science pioneer

Barbara Liskov, born on November 7, 1939 in California, is currently a professor of computer science at MIT. She was one of the first women in the US to receive a Ph.D. from a computer science department, which she obtained from Stanford University in 1968.

Her projects have included: the Venus operating system, a small time-sharing system; the design and implementation of CLU, the first language to support data abstraction; the design and implementation of Argus, the first high-level language to support the implementation of distributed programs; and the Thor object-oriented database system, which provides transactional access to persistent, highly-available objects in wide-scale distributed environments. She is most known for the Liskov Substitution Principle (LSP), a concept of subtyping which she developed with Jeannette Wing. In 2008, she won the Turing Award, one of the highest honors in science and engineering, for “contributions to practical and theoretical foundations of programming language and system design, especially related to data abstraction, fault tolerance, and distributed computing.”

The women above are just a handful of the many women who have contributed to the development of computer science and software engineering. Their roles have been overlooked, downplayed or outright ignored by history. Truth is, many of the tools and modern conveniences we use today wouldn’t exist without them.

In addition, research has shown that diversity improves performance. According to Dow Jones VentureSource (2012), successful startups have twice as many women in senior roles than unsuccessful companies. A report by Illuminate Ventures (2010) points out that women-led technology startups are more capital-efficient, with 12% higher annual revenues than those run by men using an average of one-third less capital. The report also states that women-owned companies are more likely to survive the transition from startup to established company, despite being capital-constrained. Research shows gender diversity is especially valuable where innovation is key.

codequest recognizes the contributions of women and we understand that a diverse workforce can only improve our company. That is why we place an emphasis on diversity, and over 30% of our staff is female.

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