Eleven pioneering women in the history of technology

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In the technology industry, women are still significantly under-represented. This imbalance goes right back to the classroom, where the number of girls going on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has plateaued.

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) research, the share of female university graduates in STEM subjects has shown a decline for all but tech majors over the past twenty years. While some countries such as Brunei, Bermuda and Hungry have been working to close the STEM gap, in others such as El Salvador, Laos and Columbia, the figures continue to drop dramatically.1

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Facebook, believes more role models for women is one of the ways forward.

“The word ‘female’ when inserted in front of something is always with a note of surprise. Female COO, female pilot, female surgeon – as if the gender implies surprise … one day there won’t be female leaders, there will be leaders.”

You don’t have to look too far to find some inspiring women who have broken through the glass ceiling in the technology industry. These women, and those who are making a mark today, should have far more visibility to help overcome the perception that the STEM world is male dominated.

Inspiring women who helped change the face of technology:

1. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852, UK)

Born in 1815, Lovelace grew up to be one of the most famous mathematicians of her time. Lovelace collaborated with fellow mathematician Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, which was developed to solve mathematical problems. It is cited as the first computer. Lovelace theorized a way to repeat a series of instructions, now called looping, to describe how codes could be created, and so Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer.

2. Ida Rhodes (1900–1986, USA)

Rhodes, born in the Ukraine, attended Cornell University in the U.S. with two scholarships, where she received both her BSc and MSc in mathematics in 1923. One of her key contributions to technology was the design of the C-10 language with Betty Holberton in the early 1950s, which was used by the UNIVAC 1 computer for the U.S. Census Bureau. She is also widely recognized for her contribution to computer translations of natural languages – mainly from her native Russian to English.

3. Grace Hopper (1906–1992, USA)

Known as the Queen of Code, Hopper was a computer scientist and U.S. Naval Officer. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 calculator. Hopper was central to the development of COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) through her program Flow-matic, written for performing business tasks. In 1991, President George Bush awarded her the National Medal of Technology. She was the first individual ever to receive the award.

4. Hedy Lamarr (1914–2000, Austria)

Lamarr was a glamorous Austrian-born actress in the golden age of Hollywood, but she was also an inventor. Lamarr was integral to the invention of spread spectrum technology and frequency hopping, which provided a way of sending radio signals from different frequency channels, designed to help guide torpedoes to their targets. The military later used the technology, which then became a precursor to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and CDMA.

5. Fran Allen (1932–, USA)

Allen is a leader in the field of optimizing compilers, which are programs that translate source code written in a programming language into byte code that can be understood by computers. She was the first woman to be designated an IBM fellow and in 2006 became the first woman to be awarded the ACM Turing Award, given to an individual for contributions "of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field."

6. Karen Spärck Jones (1935–2007, UK)

Spärck Jones, a British computer scientist and self-taught programmer, was responsible for the concept of inverse document frequency. This technology forms the foundation of modern search engines, such as Google. In the 1980s, she began work on early speech recognition systems and researched natural language processing (NLP) extensively. In 1994 she became President of the Association for Computational Linguistics. Spärck Jones was pivotal in setting up the Intelligent Knowledge Based Systems research area in the UK Alvey program, which amplified artificial intelligence (AI) and language research projects in the 1980s.

7. Adele Goldberg (1945–, USA)

Goldberg, a computer scientist, was one of the creators of the Smalltalk-80 programming language while working at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Apple incorporated Smalltalk-80 into the programming configuration of the original Macintosh computer. Her work was fundamental in influencing the computers we have today.

8. Rosalind Picard (1962–, USA)

Picard teaches and leads research into affective computing at the world-renowned MIT Media Lab in the U.S. She is credited with opening up the study of affective computing, which looks at the development of systems and devices that can recognize, interpret, process and respond to a user’s emotions and other stimuli. Her work is being incorporated into wearable devices to improve human wellbeing.

9. Nnenna Nwakanma (1975–, Nigeria)

Nnenna Nwakanma is a respected technology leader in Africa, working to drive affordable Internet access, data rights and digital freedom. Nwakanma is co-founder of Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA), an African organization that promotes the free software and open-source software model as a developmental tool for the continent.

10. Rebecca Enonchong (1967–, Cameroon)

Rebecca Enonchong is the Founder and CEO of AppsTech and is a high-profile promoter of technology in Africa. AppsTech is a global supplier of enterprise application solutions. Enonchong chairs ActivSpaces, which has been set up to help young tech entrepreneurs from Cameroon. ActicSpaces brings tech communities together and provides a space to learn and develop new ideas.

11. Neelam Dhawan (1959–, India)

Technology was not Neelam’s first choice when she graduated. She wanted to join an FMCG company. When this didn’t work out, she decided to try the IT industry. She is now seen as a technology leader in India and has been recognized as one of the most powerful women in business by Fortune Magazine. Dhawan has worked in key strategic roles for HCL, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard and is currently a Board Member at Royal Philips, Netherlands and ICICI Bank India. Her specialist areas are artificial intelligence (AI), digital transformation and robotics.

All of these women are truly extraordinary in their own fields and should inspire you into action – to stop talking about the technology skills gap and to start coding. You may surprise yourself at the doors coding skills can open.

Read the next post in this series which looks at initiatives to get girls coding.


1 UNESCO: How Big Is the Global Gender Gap? Depends Which Number You Look At

Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.