Inspirational women in computing: the past, present and future

08 March 2023

Recent data shows that computing is the fastest growing subject taken by young people. Analysis undertaken by BCS found that entries to A level computer science at GCSE in England were up 18% and applications to take computer science at university had increased by 13%.

However, the gender gap within computing has only marginally closed - only 19% of the applicants to computer science at university were from women. That is why it is great to see that the United Nations chosen theme for International Women’s day is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality which recognises the barriers women face in the digital world, the gender gap which exists and the need to close it.

International Women’s Day is a global day to celebrate the achievements of women and act as a chance to call for gender parity. Therefore, we are using the day to celebrate key women that have helped progress computing to where it is now, demonstrating that women do belong in computing and the role they have played. Equally, we have highlighted our research and resources which can help encourage girls in to continuing with Computer Science.

Key women in computing

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are so many women in computing to act as role models. Hopefully, the role these women played within computing can demonstrate that all women and girls can belong in computing.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace is commonly known as the first computer programmer. She worked alongside Charles Babbage on his computing machine: the Analytical Engine. As part of this work, Lovelace translated a paper on a lecture delivered by Charles Babbage on the Analytical engine and added several of her own thoughts during the process, tripling the paper in length. This paper was the first to be published which contained an algorithm designed to be processed by a machine as well as several ideas as to what else the machine would be capable of.

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton is a computer scientist and software engineer who helped popularise software engineering, and establish it as a respected field. Hamilton led the software development team at MIT to develop the flight software for NASA’s Apollo program. Her work on this was critical to the success of the Moon landing in 1969 as the software enabled the computer on board to identify any errors, and compensate for them.

Anna Easley

Anna Easley was a computer scientist and mathematician. Easley started her career as a human computer completing computations by hand for researchers. As technology progressed and there were machines available to now do these calculations, Easley became a computer programmer. Within this role, Easley developed and implemented software for the Centaur Rocket which contributed to the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini Probe. Easley also worked on other technology and developing code which supported the development of hybrid vehicles.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was an actress and inventor. Lamarr is often credited as the “Mother of Wi-Fi”. Lamarr worked with George Antheil on a communication system that would help the United States in World War Two through the guiding of torpedoes to their targets. The system involved frequency hopping amongst radio waves which would prevent the interception of these radio waves. The same technology forms the basis for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology that we use today.

Lynn Conway

Lynn Conway is an American computer scientist and electrical engineer. She made significant contributions to the area of computer architecture and her invention enabled personal computers. Conway started her career at IBM where she invented dynamic instruction scheduling allowing computers to reorganise how they handled commands. Sadly, her invention went unrecognised for decades after IBM fired her for being transgender. Conway did not let this stop her and she went on to work at PARC where she spearheaded work on the number of transistors on a single computer chip which directly led to modern computer processors.

But who is next?

There are many ways to get young girls interested and involved in computer science. Our Gender Balance research aimed to find out what worked to encourage girls during both primary and secondary schooling to develop an interest in computing, and increase the number of those who chose to continue studying Computer Science at GCSE and A-Level. A number of studies and randomised control trials were run to assess the impact of different types of interventions.

One intervention was belonging. This was based on research that exposing girls to positive role models along with encouragement from parents led the girls to feel that computing is a subject where they belong. One of the evaluations from the “belonging” report was that “providing female pupils more opportunities to interact with female role models may provide more long-term engagement in computing”. In highlighting some of the key women from computing, it demonstrates that women have been involved in the subject from the start. Therefore, it is important now to keep encouraging girls to continue with the subject and being aware of the interventions and resources available to support this is a great first step.

Resources available to help
Our “Encouraging girls into GCSE computer science” short course aims to help combat the issues raised within this blog by having discussions around the reasons behind the gender gap, different strategies to help narrow the gap and planning interventions in key stage three to improve the uptake within your school.

For last year’s International Women’s day, we published a blog discussing books that cover the gender imbalance within computing. These books are still relevant and highlight different topics including: stereotyping, role models and initiatives to increase the number of girls and women in computing.

Computing at school has a ready to use lesson on women in computing aimed at key stage 3 and 4 students. This includes a PowerPoint, lesson plan and activity sheets.