The iconic women of tech
As part of International Women’s day we felt it was important to shine a light on a few of the women we are, quite frankly, in 'awe' of for their achievements. A set of women who have pushed the boundaries and re-set the norms in society and in their professional fields.
So here's our list, it's a celebration of the amazing achievements of women in technology. As you know, it's a sector that we love but we have to be realistic, we know it needs to work harder to address gender equality, bias and much more because that is the future, a future where everyone is accepted and prejudices are a part of the past - fingers crossed. #ChooseToChallenge.
A name that we all know, Ada was around 17 when she met Charles Babbage, the mathematician and inventor. The pair became friends and worked together on numerous projects, where Babbage acted as a mentor figure. Ada was fascinated by Babbage’s ideas - think of the most outrageous AI claim you’ve heard and multiply it by 100, that’s now forward thinking this work was.
Babbage is best known as the father of the computer, he invented a machine called ‘the difference engine’, which was meant to perform mathematical calculations. Ada got a chance to look at the machine before it was finished and was captivated by it.
Babbage also created plans for another device known as ‘the analytical engine’, designed to handle more complex calculations. A machine Ada wrote the code for, creating the first algorithm.
There is much more we could tell you about this iconic figure, here’s a post we wrote in 2019
An Austrian-American actress, inventor and film producer. She appeared in 30 films over a 28-year career and co-invented an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication for torpedo guidance.
At the beginning of World War II, Lamarr was working with the composer George Antheil, together they developed a radio guidance system using frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology for the US Navy. The tech was used to jam the communication signals sent to the devices by enemy forces.
Although the invention wasn’t adopted until 1957, various spread-spectrum techniques are still used today, as a part of the Bluetooth communications, with similar methods applied and used in legacy versions of Wi-Fi as well. The value of this work wasn't recognised until 2014 when the pair were posthumously inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Hedy Lamarr was a genuine tour-de-force, she also helped improve aircraft aerodynamics for Howard Hughes – originally working with him on movies, before going on to date one another during the war years.
Called the original ‘computer in a skirt’, the work of Katherine and her colleagues in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (a forerunner of NASA), set the standard for the mathematical calculations needed to successfully launch, land and return from the moon.
Katherine was a maths genius, joining high school when she was just 10 years old and graduating at the age of 14! Katherine was ahead of her times in so many ways and life was often hard for this trail blazer, she was subjected to prejudice throughout her life. As an African American woman working in a male dominated environment she was subjected to both segregation and gender inequality.
Her talent for calculating projectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for spacecraft saw her become extremely highly regarded within her field. For example, when digital computers were used for the first time by NASA to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, he refused to fly until Katherine had verified the calculations the computer had created were correct.
Valentine was the first woman to go into space. In 1962 she was selected along with four other women to join the Russian Female Cosmonaut Corps. Being a part of this programme involved rigorous training including weightless flights, parachute jumping, pilot training and spacecraft engineering. Her first and only space flight was in 1963, when she piloted the Vostok 6 spacecraft.
She spent nearly three days in space, orbiting the Earth over 48 times! Her roles for the mission included maintaining the flight log and taking photographs of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Her flight made space travel possible for future generations of women cosmonauts and astronauts who have followed in her footsteps, proving that gender is no barrier. Both men and women are capable of coping with the physical and mental demands of space flight.
An American computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral. Grace was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, she was a pioneer of computer programming and invented one of the first linkers.
She was the first to devise the theory of machine-independent programming languages and the FLOW-MATIC programming language that she created using this theory was later extended to create COBOL - an early high-level programming language that is still in use today! This has won her numerous titles including the Queen of Software, Amazing Grace and Grandma COBOL.
The Common Business Oriented (COBOL) Language.
Before Grace developed her programming language computers communicated only in Binary - an extremely difficult language that she felt was very off-putting to newcomers. Grace theorised if more people could read programming, more people would be able to program.
Not only was she right, but many of the programming languages she helped create are still being used today across government agencies and within leading edge IT companies to develop new systems and protocols.
MARY ALLEN WILKES
If you’re viewing this post on a ‘home computer’ (remember that term? The 2021 version is home or remote working), you can thank Mary Allen Wilkes for helping make that happen. Wilkes is best known for her work on the LINC, considered by many to be the world’s first personal computer.
Mary Anne didn’t study to be a computer programmer, her passion was law. However, she was one of the first female computer scientists, working at MIT and when she joined the Digital Computer Group she began to develop the LINC programme.
LINC is the interactive operating system or OS, writing the LINC programming manual and teaching participants in LINC’s first evaluation program was Mary Anne’s project.
In 1964, she worked from her parents’ home in Baltimore using a LINC, making her a serious contender for the title of “the first person to work remotely using a computer”.
Adele is a computer scientist who helped develop the programming language ‘Smalltalk’ and other object-oriented programming concepts for UX and UI in the 1970’s. The ideas she developed with her team led to the graphically-based interfaces that we all know today.
Previously the command and control had been through command line systems, which were laborious and frustrating to use. The Smalltalk system had a profound influence on the development of the Apple UX.
In 1977, she co-authored an article called 'Personal Dynamic Media', which predicted that ordinary individuals would use computers to exchange and modify personal media. An astute vision, that few believed possible at the time.
Susan Kare’s design work revolutionised the way we all think about computers. Suddenly the machine OS had human traits and even a sense of humour! Countless Apple products owe a great deal of their success to the design skills of Susan. The now familiar interface elements of the Mac, including its command icon, the Happy Mac and the Trash Can icon were all created by her.
Susan’s design eye was also used at Microsoft and Facebook, where she helped craft iconic user experiences for these mass market interfaces too.
Delia is an English musician and composer of electronic music. She carried out pioneering work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during the 1960’s, including the arrangement of the theme music to the iconic Doctor Who TV series. She is often referred to as "the unsung heroine of British electronic music", having influenced other prominent figures including Aphex Twin, the Chemical Brothers and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital.
She joined the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager in 1960 and worked on Record Review, a magazine programme where critics reviewed classical music recordings. She said, "Some people thought I had a kind of second sight. One of the music critics would say, 'I don't know where it is, but it's where the trombones come in', and I'd hold it up to the light and see the trombones and put the needle down exactly where it was. And they thought it was magic."
During her time at the BBC she heard about the Radiophonic Workshop and decided that was where she wanted to work. This received some raised eyebrows and scratching of heads in Central Programme Operation, as people were usually "assigned" to the Radiophonic Workshop – a place and technology that wasn’t properly understood and remained something of an outlier within the corporation for years to come.
In April 1962 she was assigned there and set up 'home' in Maida Vale, where for 11 years she would create music and sound for almost 200 radio and television programmes. One of her first works, and the most widely known, was her 1963 electronic realisation of a score by Ron Grainer for the theme tune of the Doctor Who series, one of the first television themes to be created and produced by entirely electronic means.
When Ron Grainer first heard it, he was so amazed by her rendering of his theme that he asked, "Did I really write this?", to which Derbyshire replied: "Most of it". Grainer attempted to get her a co-composer credit, but the attempt was prevented by BBC bureaucracy, which then preferred to keep the members of the workshop anonymous.
She was not be credited on-screen for her work until Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. Derbyshire's original arrangement served as Doctor Who's main theme for its first seventeen series from 1963 to 1980.
Joy Buolamwini is a ground-breaking Ghanaian American computer scientist. She taught herself to program at an early age and has worked all over the world, from Ethiopia and Zambia to the United States, her work serves to empower underserved communities through software development.
She is an MIT Media Lab graduate researcher who discovered that algorithms for facial recognition had difficulty identifying dark skinned women. This inspired her to launch a project called Gender Shades, which got attention from around the world.
She then created a program called ‘Algorithmic Justice League’ to highlight and fight the bias in technology. She was awarded the Better World Award in 2020, this recognises individuals who demonstrate "a real commitment to building a diverse and inclusive tech community and making a Better World".
Carol Shaw is known as the first female video game programmer. She is best known for creating River Raid. She worked at Atari in the early days of games and game development, tackling projects such as the programming the Atari 2600 - a now iconic product that helped cartridge games become popular.
After her time at Atari, she joined Activision. She was the first female game designer in both organisations. Her interest in text-based computer games began at school when she first used a computer. She went on to study computer science at University, gaining a master’s degree. Here's the best bit - her success as a programmer allowed her to retire early. Nice work Carol!
Kim Swift is a probably the most famous female games designer, best known for her work at video game developer and distributor Valve. She designed Portal, the incredibly popular first-person puzzle-platform game, which has won multiple awards for its innovative gameplay and design. She also designed Left 4 Dead, and Left4Dead2 - both bestsellers.
The accolades for Kim Swifts work come thick and fast - featured in Fortune as one of "30 Under 30" influential figures in the video game industry. She was described in Mental Floss as one of the most recognised women in the industry and by Wired as "an artist that will push the medium forward".
She joined Amazon in 2014 to help build games within their internal studio setup. In 2017 she moved to Electronic Arts, where she works as a design director within Motive Studios, developing Star Wars Battlefront II.
Often called the ‘mother of the internet’, Radia Perlman invented the ‘spanning-tree protocol’. An Ethernet technology that allows for the creation of huge networks by creating a mesh network of layer-2 bridges and then disables the links that aren’t part of that tree. This sounds extremely impressive, it sounds complicated, game changing and it is! Radia’s work helped to make the internet a more streamlined and robust experience that we all enjoy today.
Radia has over 100 patents to her name, but she remains modest about her contributions to the systems we all use every day. Her work has been awarded with numerous honours, including the 2004 Inventor of the Year and she was recognised as one of ‘the 20 most influential people in information technology’.
Anne Marie Imafidon is the founder of Stemettes, promoting women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
Born in 1990, Anne-Marie was a child prodigy of computing, maths and languages. She became the youngest-ever graduate with a master’s degree at the age of 19! Since then, she has received honorary doctorates from Open University, Glasgow Caledonian University and an honorary fellowship from Keble College, Oxford.
To date, Stemettes has worked with over 45,000 young people across Europe, helping Anne-Marie pursue her dream of a more inclusive and diverse STEM industry. What an achievement and lets hope this fantastic work continues to attract more women into tech.
Megan Smith was the 3rd person ever to hold the title of ‘Chief Technology Officer of the United States’ when she served under Barack Obama in 2014. This is significant for a number of reasons.
1- She was the first U.S. CTO with a technical background, having previously been a leader at Google.
2 - She was the first woman to hold the highest technology role in the nation. A position she used to promote inclusion of women and LGBTQ people in technology.
Since leaving office she’s focused on encouraging students to get involved in STEM innovation and has helped to found the ‘Tech Jobs Tour’ promoting diversity in technology.
We hope that this blog helps to shine a light on, what are without doubt, the iconic achievements of women in technology. We know that there are many other women in tech that we should include, if you have a particular person in mind, please get in touch and tell us more. We’d love to expand this post and highlight the people and their work.