Women as software developers


Although I am trying to avoid commenting politics, I believe it’s better to talk rather than keep my mouth shut. Shutting my mouth is the easy task. The motive I am writing this piece, is Greta Thunberg, and the comments full of hate and sexism (unfortunately), I have been reading against her during her visit in the USA, and her presence at the 2019 UN climate action summit in New York. I will not comment on Greta’s actions on environmental awareness, or the hateful comments about her. The whole thing is just a strong motivation for me to express my thoughts on the “women as software developers” issue, that has been quite strong in the past few years.

Ada Lovelace, the first programmer ever

Image from wikipedia
Image from wikipedia

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) was an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is sometimes regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and one of the first computer programmers.

Wikipedia page about Ada Lovelace

In 1840, Babbage was invited to give a seminar at the University of Turin about his Analytical Engine. Luigi Menabrea, a young Italian engineer and the future Prime Minister of Italy, transcribed Babbage’s lecture into French, and this transcript was subsequently published in the Bibliothèque universelle de Genève in October 1842 [1].

Babbage’s friend Charles Wheatstone commissioned Ada Lovelace to translate Menabrea’s paper into English. She then augmented the paper with notes, which were added to the translation. Ada Lovelace spent the better part of a year doing this, assisted with input from Babbage. These notes, which are more extensive than Menabrea’s paper, were then published in the September 1843 edition of Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initialism AAL [1].

Ada Lovelace’s notes were labelled alphabetically from A to G. In note G, she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered to be the first published algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, and Ada Lovelace has often been cited as the first computer programmer for this reason. The engine was never completed so her program was never tested[1] .

Between 1842 and 1843, Ada translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the calculating engine, supplementing it with an elaborate set of notes, simply called Notes. These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Other historians reject this perspective and point out that Babbage’s personal notes from the years 1836/1837 contain the first programs for the engine [1].

Lovelace’s notes are important in the early history of computers. She also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, while many others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.Her mindset of “poetical science” led her to ask questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.[1]

In 1953, more than a century after her death, Ada Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished as an appendix to B.V. Bowden’s Faster than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer and her notes as a description of a computer and software.[1]

So in simple terms, Ada was the first programmer ever. Not like the way we know it today, but she was the first one who designed an algorithm, and had a machine to apply it in order to solve a set of problems. If you want to read more about women in computing start from here.

When things went south, and why?

After Ada, lots of women have been involved in the software development business. But if you ask anyone, no one knows them. Maybe Grace Hopper or/and Margaret Hamilton but that’s it! The rest fall off the radar. And the reason is simple. We never cared to know. But why?

In the sixties and the seventies the computer industry in general, was completely different than today. You had to go at work, to face a huge computer like Harvard Mark 1 or IBM 7090. It was a pure scientific work, the societies were progressing and pushing themselves as far as possible from the WWII sufferings. Of course there were stereotypes, racism, bigotry against women and minorities, especially in the US, but about the software development, it was a scientific job for everybody.

And then we have the eighties! Things changed radically and completely! Computers became cheap and small enough that everyone could have (at least) one at home. So PC companies had to build a marketing strategy. What there was in front of them was a male dominant society, so they decided that PCs are toys for boys and not for girls. Let’s check the following examples:

Commodore Computer Club Magazine 1982 Italy
Yugoslavian PC magazine. Most of its covers are like that. Check here
German computer magazine named “CPU”
CompuServe CB simulator
Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer (1980)
Texas instruments ad with Bill Cosby
Osborne 1 ad. The company lasted only five years (1980 – 1985)
The great Isaac Asimov
Two hot bytes. Actually this ad was in 1978
IBM 5110 ad
80s PCcommercial compilation

Do you really need me to explain to you of what is wrong with the images above? I don’t think so. The message is clear!

The hidden figures

The cover photo of this article is from here. About the movie check here.

Women working as so-called “human computers” worked for NASA. In the late 19th century, the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions [4].

Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs [4].

In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) hired five women to be their first computer pool at the Langley campus. “The women were meticulous and accurate… and they didn’t have to pay them very much,” NASA’s historian Bill Barry says, explaining the NACA’s decision. In June 1941, with war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to ensure the growth of the federal workforce [4].

First he issued Executive Order 8802, which banned “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin” (though it does not include gender). Six months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the throes of war, NACA and Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees to work as human computers [4].

While they did the same work as their white counterparts, African-American computers were paid less and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. They became known as the “West Computers.” Despite having the same education, they had to retake college courses they had already passed and were often never considered for promotions or other jobs within NACA [4].

One of those women was Dorothy Vaughan. Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) was an African American mathematician and human computer who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and NASA, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia [5].

In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at the center. She later was promoted officially to the position. During her 28-year career, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff the programming language of FORTRAN; she later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley [5].

Seeing that machine computers were going to be the future, she taught the women programming languages and other concepts to prepare them for the transition. Vaughan became proficient in computer programming, teaching herself FORTRAN and teaching it to her coworkers to prepare them for the transition. She contributed to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program [5].

Dorothy and the Western computers played a significant role in developing the Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system (SCOUT), capable of sending a 175 kg satellite into orbit. Vaughan also assisted the calculations of flight trajectories for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States, responsible for the first American orbiting the earth (John Glenn) and Apollo 11 mission to the moon [6].

Dorothy Vaughan’s Retirement Party, 1971 [7]

Project Emma

Project Emma is a wearable device initially created to help a specific person suffering from Parkinson’s, Emma Lawton, to compensate for the intentional tremors in her hands. Project Emma is named after Emma, who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 29. This designer and creative director was afraid the diagnosis would mean the end of her career, since drawing and writing were difficult with her constant tremors.


The woman responsible for this success is Haiyan Zhang. She is Innovation Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Haiyan has a Masters degree with Distinction in Interaction Design from the renowned Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, and has a Bachelor of Computer Science (First-Class Honours) from Monash University, Australia [9].

This invention started as part of an engagement with the BBC documentary series The Big Life Fix. Haiyan Zhang, Innovation Director at Microsoft Research Cambridge, was tapped by the show to develop a biomedical device that might help Emma. Her team developed the Emma Watch technology, which has helped Emma regain control of her hand in performing simple drawing and writing tasks [8].

What’s next?

First of all, we must stop behaving like idiots, and start behaving like humans with emotions and manners. Women are as much capable as men, to work as software developers, or at any other field, scientific or not. For logic’s sake it’s 2019! It’s stupid to discuss if women can, equally as men or not these days! YES THEY FUCKING CAN. DEAL WITH IT!

There is no need for excluding women, no need for mocking women or making them feel small. I could write a huge analysis about gender equality, social, financial motives and a number of various reasons why women are not a large percentage of the IT industry. But the information is already out there for anyone who cares to search. I don’t want to give any piece advice to any one, on how to behave to women. I believe that is nowadays is already provided by family, school and society itself.

The only piece of advice I am going to give you is that, if you ever feel, for a number of reasons, that women can’t, just stand in front of a mirror and try to define yourself. Try to define if you are sensitive, kind, open minded, mature enough, not only to women, but to everybody, including yourself.

Bonus! The jackass case

Lyndsey Scott, a Victoria’s Secret Model is also a software developer. Some jackasses mocked here online [10]. This happened:

So those smart asses got the best “you had it coming” answer.


[1]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace

[2]. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221546.2016.1257306?journalCode=uhej20

[3]. https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/09/06/hidden-figures-book-movie-nasa

[4]. https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers/

[5]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Vaughan

[6]. https://medium.com/a-computer-of-ones-own/dorothy-vaughan-space-heroine-a9b7e2d6b1b3

[7]. https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/dorothy-vaughans-retirement-party-1971

[8]. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/project/project-emma/

[9]. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/people/hazhang/

[10]. https://www.boredpanda.com/victoria-secret-model-programmer-lyndsey-scott/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic