Women who count: a short history of women in tech


Helene Panzarino looks back at how women have played a key part in developing computer technology and their role in the future of fintech and digital banking and finance.

Although men still dominate the tech sector, the irony is that without women we might not have a tech sector at all.

You could say that women invented computers. In the past, the word ‘computer’ used to mean ‘female mathematician’ or ‘women who count’.

It all started with Ada Lovelace – the incredibly clever daughter of the poet Lord Byron – whose mother insisted on her learning maths and science as well as languages.

She wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine that existed only on paper. She’s widely attributed with having invented computer science and – although she didn’t work alone – there’s no doubt her contribution was invaluable.

Female pioneers in technology

According to the BBC, the word computer’ comes from the Latin ‘putare’ which means both to think and to prune. By 1731, the word had come to mean someone who did calculations.

In the late 19th century, at Harvard College Observatory in the USA, a large group of workers were employed to analyse images of stars and compare their positions. These workers were women and – because they were brilliant mathematicians – they were called ‘computers’. Their pioneering work continued into the 20th Century.

Taking a leaf out of Harvard’s book, in the 1930s, NASA began hiring women as computers. When war broke out, NASA expanded its computer pool, recruiting many college-educated African American women.

The legacy of Ada Lovelace seemed to be gaining momentum with women taking their rightful place at the scientific table.

So, what went wrong for tech women?

In post-war Britain, IBM UK measured the time it took to manufacture a computer in ‘girl hours’, because the people making computers were nearly all women. However, the British government – the biggest computer employer in the land – declined to give women equal pay as computer work was considered low value.

But then perceptions changed.

By the 1960s, it was clear that computers had great potential, that they would be essential in the future. This meant they required managers to decide how they were programmed. But back then, women were considered unfit for management.

Female computer programmers

You’d be forgiven for thinking that was the end for all those women in computing, but you’d be wrong!

In 1962, computer programmer Stephanie Shirley struck out on her own and set up the software company, Freelance Programmers. One of her clients would be Ann Moffatt from the team that programmed the iconic supersonic aeroplane, Concorde. Ann eventually became technical director at Concorde in charge of over 300 home-based female programmers.

As technology advanced, nerds and geeks became cool. However, despite the early key roles for women, the stereotype was distinctly male and so was the US tech heartland, Silicon Valley.

What led to this shift in the landscape is a much longer debate than this piece allows. Perhaps it was the lack of visible role models, or part of the wider problem of girls being less likely to choose maths and science at school. Whatever it was, the reality was that fewer women saw a future for themselves in tech.

One thing we know for sure though, it wasn’t – as one Google employee once suggested – anything to do with differences in the brain.

In some parts of the world – such as India and South America – women play a much bigger role in IT, than in Europe and North America. This deserves our attention.

Tech can give you a great future

In banking and finance technology is changing the way we do things. There’s increasing demand for new talent to help innovate.

Banks and financial services organisations are looking for talented professionals who already have the skills they need – or who they can train. Gender parity in all areas of financial services has to be the goal.

This represents a new wave of opportunity and potentially gives a whole new meaning to ‘women who count’.

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