Female Tech Pioneers

International Women’s Day is coming up and we here at SparkPost would like to celebrate by highlighting the achievements of a few women who have contributed to technology throughout history. Today we are highlighting women who have made significant contributions in their fields and we owe them our thanks for things like hybrid cars and the Internet.

Grace Murray Hopper was an incredible woman who earned a Ph.D. from Yale in mathematics in 1934, worked as an engineer at Harvard, and eventually became a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. While she earned awards for her work with the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III computers, her most notable accomplishment in tech is the development of a compiler known as FLOW-MATIC. Compilers are like translators that allow computers to understand various types of input.

Hopper believed that the biggest obstacle to computers in the 1950’s was how non-user-friendly they were. She took her work with compilers and continued to develop FLOW-MATIC so that computers could “understand” English words. Eventually, her work led to the creation of COBOL or common business-oriented language. COBOL was an effort to translate and standardize the various coding languages that were popping up at the time. Her work with FLOW-MATIC and COBOL also lead to international standards and validation facilities for most programming languages. She’s the reason why developers and engineers can work in different languages but still work together. [1]

Annie Easley was an African American woman who worked at NASA starting out as a “human computer” in 1955. She continued her education while working full time and learned programming when computers replaced the human computers at NASA. She created and implemented code for researching energy conservation technology now used in hybrid cars. This technology laid the foundation for the space shuttle and satellite launches and was also used in the Centaur upper-stage rocket that was used on the Cassini probe.

Easley was a strong proponent of female and minority outreach and education. She took on the role of equal employment opportunity counselor where she addressed issues of discrimination with supervisors. She also helped lead the way for women’s rights by wearing a pantsuit to work which was a bold move at the time. When asked about discrimination throughout her career she had this to say, “My head is not in the sand. But my thing is, if I can’t work with you, I will work around you. I was not about to be [so] discouraged that I’d walk away. That may be a solution for some people, but it’s not mine.” [2]

Radia Perlman is most famous for the creation of the Spanning Tree Protocol or STP which essentially allows the Internet to function. Perlman attended MIT in the 1960s and ‘70s and was one of the very few women in her class. In an interview, she noted how accustomed she had become to being the only women in her classes. On the rare occasion when there was a second woman she said, “I’d notice that it kind of looked weird…this other gender person looking curiously out of place in the crowd. I’d have to remind myself that I was also that ‘other gender’.”

While working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab, Perlman developed a programming language as well as special input devices for teaching young children, some as young as three years old, how to program a robot. Unfortunately, she abandoned this research because she felt a woman working with small children would not be taken seriously in her field. Imagine where we’d be if every child was taught programming in elementary school. [3]

Inspiration for Today

It’s 2018 and women are still struggling to find equality in many fields, one of the most prominent being technology. I have nothing but respect for Grace Hopper, Annie Easley, and Radia Perlman who faced even greater challenges than what we face today. Their intelligence and perseverance is something to aspire to. While we’ve got a long way to go, we’re making strides to address these issues and I’m proud to say I work for a company where over 42% of our VPs are women. I know that my professional development at SparkPost will be based on my accomplishments and work ethic rather than my gender and that no position is out of my reach as long as I keep learning and keep moving forward.

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