Influential women in computer science
In support of International Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions of 15 of the most influential women throughout the history of computer science. Their biographies and accomplishments in the field are celebrated here. If there is someone you would like to see us highlight next year, leave your message in the comment section.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace is the only daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Lady Anne Isabella Byron. Her father left a few weeks after Lovelace’s birth, leaving her to be raised under the influence of her mathematically gifted mother and the tutorage of some of the finest minds in the country.
Although Lovelace died of cancer at the young age of 36, she accomplished much in that time. At 12 years old she was already pushing the boundaries of science, working on the design for a steam-powered flying machine fifteen years before the first aerial steam carriage was ever patented.
Then at 17 she met Charles Babbage, the man who shortly became her mentor and whose work on the Analytical Engine (the first attempt at an all general purpose computer) facilitated Lovelace’s most influential contribution in computer science.
Lovelace had studied his plans at length, and when asked to translate a set of French lecture notes on the subject she instead found herself correcting them and eventually tripling its original length with her expert footnotes, which included several of what would eventually be considered early computer programs.
Despite living years before the invention of modern computers, Lovelace was the first person to ever write and publish a full set of instructions for a computing device, and is widely recognized as the world’s first computer programmer.
While the Analytical Engine was never built, and Lovelace’s program never tested, she left a lasting impact on the history of Computer Science and of the world. Her notes, found at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing, acted as great inspiration during his vital code breaking work.
Grace Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and US naval officer, whose career in Computer Science deservedly earned her the nicknames “Amazing Grace” and “Queen of Software”.
She joined the Naval Reserve in 1943 and was one of the original team assigned to work on Mark I – the first large-scale automatic calculator and a precursor to electronic computers. While working on this project Hopper coined the term ‘bug’ to refer to computer problems after her team faced a mystifying computer error. The problem was eventually solved after Hopper opened the machine to find there was a moth stuck inside.
Hopper retired the navy in 1966 with the rank of commander, but was recalled the following year to help standardise the navy’s computer languages. She was the oldest officer on active U.S. naval duty by the time she retired for good in 1986.
Over the course of her long career she pioneered many developments in computer technology. She invented the first compiler, a program that translates programming code to machine language, and she aided in creating one of the first commercial computers produced in the United States (UNIVAC I), and in developing one of the first high-level programming languages (COBOL).
Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008)
Dorothy Vaughan was an American mathematician and computer programmer and one of the women whose story is told in the movie Hidden Figures (2016).
After graduating cum laude at the age of 19 with a B.A. in Mathematics, Vaughan spend the next fourteen years teaching in Virginian public schools. Then in 1943 she joined NACA at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory for what she thought would be a temporary war job.
She became part of the West Computers, a group of black women who acted as human ‘computers’ calculating flight paths and analysing data for aerospace engineers. Their focus shifted to the US’s space program after the war, but they made important contributions to every area of research at Langley. In 1949, Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor, and one of the NACA’s few female supervisors.
She led the West Computers for almost a decade, until 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, and the segregated facilities were abolished. Many of the West Computers including Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD).
Once electronic computers moved to the forefront, Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and she also worked on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913-1985)
Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was a woman of many firsts. In 1958 she began working at Dartford College as the first and only woman in the computer centre. Then in 1965 she competed her doctorate at Washington University, becoming the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Computer Science.
Additionally, as she had joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1932, Keller can also claim the title of the first nun to earn a PhD in Computer Science.
While at Dartford, Keller helped develop the BASIC computer language which helps translate binary into a more accessible code, making it accessible to a broader range of people and widening the field of Computer Science.
Keller truly believed in the potential of computers to make the world a more educated place, and was a big advocate that Computer Science and the information produced through the field should be widely and easily accessible. In these regards Keller was a forward thinker who accurately predicted the information explosion of the modern technological world.
Frances Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Snyder Holberton (1917-2001)
Betty Holberton’s work in computing greatly assisted America’s war efforts, and developed the modern computer industry as we know it. Yet her career path nearly went another way entirely. She enrolled in The University of Pennsylvania to study mathematics, but on her first day of classes her professor told her that she was wasting her time studying maths and that she should stay home to raise children instead. Holberton didn’t go home but she did switch to studying journalism – one of the few career paths open to women at the time
However she was thankfully not deterred for long and life quickly put her back on the path to computer science. With so many men away fighting in the Second World War, job opportunities for women opened up, and Holberton was hired by the U.S. army to be a human ‘computer’ using complex differential calculations to determine ballistic trajectories.
In 1945 the army began funding the ENIAC project – the first electronic general purpose digital computers. Holberton was one of 6 ‘computers’ selected for the project. ENIAC’s first major undertaking was to solve a vital problem for the Manhattan Project. Yet its most important role in history is that it laid the foundations for everything that followed for the electronic computing industry. Holberton also led a committee which created the first language which allowed programs to be run on more than one computer
In 1997 she was awarded many honours, including the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, and an induction into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
Gladys West (1930-present)
It could be said that without Gladys West’s contributions to Computer Science we would be lost, for West’s work is directly responsible for the accuracy of modern GPS and the measurement of satellite data.
Gladys West’s work was only recently recognised by the general public, when a member of West’s university sorority read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function.
In 1956 West began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where she was only the second black woman hired (and with only two black male colleagues). West’s job was to collect data from satellites, working on programs for satellite geodesy [measuring the size and shape of Earth], and contributed to the accuracy of GPS. She was later recommended as project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.
In 2018 not only did the 87-year-old West complete a post-retirement PhD, but she was also inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame at the Pentagon.
Frances E. Allen (1932-present)
Frances Allen is one of the earliest minds to have worked on the optimizing compiler – programs which translate the programmed source code into the machine code which is used by the computer.
Allen’s career had humble origins, teaching maths in a small rural high school in Peru, New York. When she accepted a job at IBM her plan was to stay just long enough to earn the money needed to pay off her student loans; instead she found a new drive and ended up staying for 45 years.
When Allen first joined IBM in 1957 her job was teaching a new computer language, called FORTRAN, to staff scientists. But by the ‘60s she was working on the compilers for IBM supercomputers, developing the more advanced compilers which now allow computers to work faster and more efficiently. She then went on to found the Parallel TRANslation Group (PTRAN) which specialises in multiprocessing systems.
In 1989 Allen was the first woman to be named as an IBM fellow, and in 1995 became president of the IBM Academy of Technology. In 2002 she received the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award from the Association of Women in Computing. However, her most prestigious award came in 2006, when Allen became the first woman to be awarded the Alan Turing prize – the highest honour in computer science.
Annie Easley (1933-2011)
Annie Easley was a computer scientist and mathematician whose career with NASA spanned 34 years. She was one of the first African-American women in the field and worked on numerous projects encompassing rocket science, engineering, battery technology and more.
Born in 1933, Easley was raised by her single mother in Birmingham, Alabama. Opportunities for African-Americans were limited, particularly in the south, but her mother encouraged her and told her she could do anything she wanted to do as long as she worked at it; Easley graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and for roughly two years majored in pharmacy at Xavier University. When she registered to vote she was subjected to a Jim Crow-era poll tax (“You went to Xavier University,” the test-giver noted. “Two dollars.”) and a test on state history. Alabama’s restrictive voting laws discouraged votes from minority backgrounds, and Easley would use her education to help others prepare for the test.
After moving to Cleveland to be closer to her husband’s family, the only pharmacy school in the area closed. Whilst looking for work she found a story in the newspaper about twin sisters who worked as ‘computers’ by performing computations for NACA. She began work there in 1955 and did work as a computer for a time – similar in role to what Katherine Johnson and the aforementioned twins did – but Easley was also a talented mathematician and eventually learned FORTRAN and SOAP programming languages for electronic computers. In 1977 Easley earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Cleveland State University, where she’d been continuing her education while working for NASA.
Easley’s work contributed to research of energy-conversion systems, analysing alternative power technology (including the battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles) and the Centaur rocket. When the first American space probe landed on the moon it was powered by one of these rockets. And for the 1997 flight to Saturn of the Cassini probe, the probe launcher had the Centaur as its upper stage.
Margaret Hamilton (1936-present)
Margaret Hamilton is one of the world’s first computer software programmers. She is responsible for coining the term ‘software engineering’ (while working for NASA) as part of her drive to bring legitimacy and respect to the newly emerging field of software.
Hamilton has had an expansive career, participating in roughly 60 projects, six major programs, and publishing more than 130 papers. However, the work she is most renowned for is her contribution to the Apollo space missions. She led the team at NASA responsible for creating software for the guidance and control systems for the Apollo missions. No schools even taught software engineering at this time so her team was entirely reliant on their own ingenuity to make these integral leaps in software programming.
Her main work was on designing the various software which detected system errors, prioritised the display screens, and recovered software in the case of a computer crash; systems that turned out to be essential to the success of the Apollo 11 mission which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969.
Hamilton has received a number of awards for her vital work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Lynn Conway (1938-present)
During the 1970s Conway became a renowned pioneer in microelectronic chip design for her work at PARC. By the end of the decade the Department of Defence had started a major new program sponsoring research to build on her work, and dozens of start-up companies were forming to commercialize this new knowledge.
She co-authored a textbook ‘Introduction to VLSI Systems’ which was quickly introduced to universities worldwide, teaching and inspiring thousands. She has been awarded many honours for these contributions to computer science, including being elected as a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional recognition in the field of engineering.
These achievements alone are enough to earn Conway a spot on this list, but in fact reflects only one of her invaluable contributions to the field. In 1965, having only recently left university, she invented a method for issuing multiple out-of-order instructions per machine cycle in supercomputers, called dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). This invention made possible the creation of the first true superscalar computer.
Yet for a large part of her life she had been unable to take credit for her other achievements as they had been made while she had been still living as a man under her deadname, prior to her undergoing hormonal and surgical sex reassignment in 1967 (one of the first transsexual women to do so). These were not kind times for transgender and transsexual individuals, and shortly before Lynn underwent surgery she was fired by IBM for being transsexual. It is therefore unsurprising that Conway chose to move forwards with a fresh slate, leaving the discrimination in her past to build from the ground up yet another impactful career in Computer Science – changing the face of computer science not once but twice.
Dr. Anita Borg (1949-2003)
Compared to some of the other women on this list, Anita Borg found her way to computer science a little later in life, as she was in her mid-twenties before she ‘found her way to a computer keyboard’. She then went on to receive her PhD in computer science.
She has received numerous honours and awards over her lifetime, not just for her work in the technological side of computer science, but also for the vital role she has played in supporting and advancing the women in the field.
In 1987 Borg co-founded ‘Systers’, an online community (still remaining to this day) dedicated to creating a space for women to share resources and to promote an environment where they could share their issues and to support one another through them. The field of computer science remained male dominated and it was invaluable resource to connect like-minded women together.
In 1994 Borg co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration – the world’s largest conference for female technologists. She then founded the Instituted for Women and Technology, which oversaw both Systers and the Grace Hopper Celebration, as well as introducing new programs to address the gender gap in Computer Science. After her death in 2003 it was renamed The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in her honour.
Radia Perlman (1951-present)
Radia Perlman is commonly known as “Mother of the Internet” for her significant contributions to the technology which made the internet possible. She developed the Snapping Tree Protocol (STP), which is essentially a traffic pattern for the internet to travel along, including multiple links between network points to ensure data is always accessible.
Perlman started her career in the late 1960s, a time where computer science was a particularly male-dominated field. She was the only female in her high school programming class (the very class that enflamed her passion for the subject and led her down this career path). And while studying at MIT she was one of roughly 50 women in a class of 1000.
Perlman specialised on network and security protocols, and over the course of her career she has over 100 patents. She has also released a textbook – ‘Interconnection’ – which simplified network routing and bridging, and co-authored another.
She has recently completed work on TRILL (TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links) a replacement for STP which has improved data security on the Internet.
From her paper “An Algorithm for Distributed Computation of a Spanning Tree in an Extended LAN”
I think that I shall never see
A graph more lovely than a tree.
A tree whose crucial property
Is loop-free connectivity.
A tree which must be sure to span
So packets can reach every LAN.
First the root must be selected.
By ID it is elected.
Least cost paths from root are traced.
In the tree these paths are placed.
A mesh is made by folks like me
Then bridges find a spanning tree.
Shafi Goldwasser (1959-present)
Shafrira “Shafi” Goldwasser is an American-Israeli mathematician and computer scientist who has made significant contributions to the fields of cryptography, computational complexity, computational number theory and probabilistic algorithms.
Born in New York she moved to Tel Aviv for her school years, and developed an interest in physics and mathematics. This developed into a love of programming and computer science after she moved back to the United States for University.
She has maintained an impressive career, becoming the RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a professor of mathematical sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, co-founder and chief scientist of Duality Technologies and the director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing in Berkeley, California.
She has co-invented probabilistic encryption, which attained the gold standard for security for data encryption. She then co-invented zero-knowledge proofs, a key tool in cryptographic protocols.
She has won a number of awards including;
- The 2012 Turing Award along with Silvio Micali for their work in the field of cryptography.
- The Gödel Prize in theoretical computer science: first in and again in 2001.
- The ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1996, for outstanding young computer professional of the year
- The RSA Award for Excellence in Mathematics in 1998, for outstanding mathematical contributions to cryptography
Marissa Mayer (1975-present)
Marrisa Mayer was an overachiever from a young age, leading her to receive 14 (fourteen!) job offers after leaving university. But in 1999 she ended up as employee number 20 in a small company called Google, where she worked writing code and oversaw the design of Google’s search functions. Mayer became a multi-millionaire when the company went public in 2004.
Her expertise and attention to detail moved her up through the ranks, becoming Vice President of Search Products and User Experience in 2005. She remained there until 2010 when she was offered the position of CEO at Yahoo, a company which had seen 5 CEOs in 5 years and was in desperate need of new and strong leadership. She resigned from the company in 2017 and now focuses on investing in a range of smaller technology companies.
Marissa Mayer is a poster woman for using brains to build success, though in this period of her life her success is best displayed not on posters but on magazines covers.
- In 2008, at age 33, Mayer became the youngest women ever listed in Fortune Magazine’s annual list of ‘America’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business’ (#50). Over the next five years she climbed her way up the list, reaching #8 in 2013.
- 2013 was a particularly strong year for Mayer as she became the first woman to reach the #1 spot in Fortune magazine’s annual list of the ‘Top 40 business stars under 40 years old’, and also became the only person to feature in all three of Fortune’s annual lists in a single year (having also made #10 in the ‘Businessperson of the Year’).
- 2013 was also the year when Mayer became the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to be featured in a Vogue magazine spread.
- She was listed in Forbes Magazine’s List of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2012 (#20), 2013 (#32) and 2014 (#18).
What the future holds, we shall have to wait and see.
Lyndsey Scott (1984-present)
Born in West Orange, New Jersey, Lyndsey Scott is the eldest of four children. She would attend Amherst College where her varied interests and talents were on full display. Scott studied theatre, economics and physics (and eventually taking computer science courses), earned All-American status for the track and field team in the 400m dash, and ultimately graduated with a double major in theatre and computer science.
Her programming began at 12 when she would write games for her TI-89 graphic calculator. At Amhurst College she would learn Java, C++ and the MIPS architecture, but when it came to her own applications she taught herself the skills necessary, writing applications for iOS, Python and Objective C on her own. Scott would go on to publish apps supporting young Ugandan scholars (Educate!), young girls in programming (Code Made Cool), models in need of digital portfolios (iPort) and a social networking app (The Matchmaker).
After being side-lined by other programmers because of their assumptions based on her gender and appearance, Scott created a profile on Stack Overflow and built her reputation by answering questions. For a time in 2015 she was the top-ranked user for iOS questions and even now remains among the most highly-ranked question answerers in the community.
Scott is also well-known for her acting and modelling careers, but she continues to be a freelance programmer passionate about inspiring young women. She is a mentor at Girls Who Code, has given talks at NYU on programming, mentored Girl Scouts in programming, is a member of the iOS tutorial team for RayWenderlich.com and has done video tutorials for children for Code.org.