Coding Legends: Women in Programming Who Changed the World

Mar/27/2023 / by Melanie Fourie
Women in Coding
Image credits: Christina Morillo via Pexels

There is a widespread belief that learning to code is the one thing you need to do to solve all your problems! There’s also been a lot of discussion lately about how we need to get more women in coding positions to bridge a gap that will only widen if we don’t. Then we were confronted with a startling fact: women make up just 14% of the software engineering workforce. When the first computers entered the picture and upended everything, did the gender ratio of women working in technology always seem this way, or did it shift over time? We retraced our steps to the very start in order to find out.

The First Female Computer Programmer

The common, albeit somewhat clichéd, depiction of the introverted man programmer is not necessarily indicative of historical norms. Defying the stereotype that women can’t be creative, Lady Ada Lovelace created the first computer code. For the Analytical Engine developed by mathematician Charles Babbage, she built code to determine the Bernoulli sequence of integers. 

Women were the first to use massive number-crunching devices similar to computers to crack codes during World War II. Cinematic accounts of their service to the war effort, such as The Bletchley Circle, are extensive. Computers had previously been a closely guarded military secret, but after the war, they quickly became a revolutionary new field of study. When computers were first introduced, training programs for women to become programmers focused only on finding those with the necessary ability. This paved the way for a number of accomplished and well-known female programmers to break through in the 50s and 60s.

Women in Coding Who Left an Everlasting Legacy

The following list is inspired by Hack Reactor.

Augusta Ada Lovelace 

As mentioned earlier, this lady was the first woman to code. Despite not having an official title, this lady is universally recognized as the Grand Dame of computer programming. Lord Byron’s daughter was the Countess of Lovelace. However, her greatest claim to fame had little to do with her royal title, save that it was probably the reason she was taken seriously. Ada Lovelace was an early 19th-century mathematician and author. Most notably, she and Charles Babbage developed the first mechanical computer—analytical engine—that could do arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Ada was tasked by Babbage to convert a French essay on the analytical engine by Italian engineer Luigi Federico Menabrea for a Swiss publication from the latter language into English. Ada not only translated the piece, but also added her own remarks, which made it much lengthier. One of the English scientific journals published her notes in 1843.

Her notes explained how individuals might program computers to do a wide variety of tasks by using a combination of letters, symbols, and numbers. The name “Ada” has become synonymous with “computer programmer.” During the 1980s, the United States Department of Defence appropriately honoured Ada by naming a dialect after her: Ada.

Mary Jackson

Women, and especially African-American women, played a crucial role in the 1960s space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, as shown in the film Hidden Figures.
Jackson, a mathematician and aeronautical engineer, was born in 1921. In 1942, she earned two bachelor’s degrees from what is now Hampton University: one in mathematics and one in physical science. 

Soon after finishing college, she accepted a position as a math teacher in a Maryland school for black students that was still segregated. Later, she worked in secretarial roles until 1951, when she was selected by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA

In Honour of Frances Allen

Frances Allen, who is most recognized for her phenomenal work in optimizing compilers, has one of the most interesting tales of women in computer science. She joined the world in August of 1932. She pursued a career in education and enrolled in the New York State College for Teachers, much like a lot of other mid-century women. 

She completed a baccalaureate program in mathematics and is now in the classroom sharing her knowledge with students. After two years, she returned to school to get her master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan.

Programming Pioneer Annie Easley

Annie Easley, born in 1933, was yet another coding trailblazer who got her start in the era of space exploration. Before ever seeing his first computer, Easley was already in love. She learned of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ existence from a 1955 newspaper article about a pair of sisters who served on the committee. She submitted her application to the space agency the next day, and started working there two weeks later.

Before attending college, Easley had experience in the fields of mathematics and computer programming. She continued his education at Cleveland State University, where he earned a BS in computer science in the 1970s. NASA’s educational opportunities were also explored by her. When she first began working at the Plum Brook Reactor Facility, Easley was one of just four individuals of colour there. In an article, she said flatly that she did not see herself as a trailblazer. It’s simply that I approach things differently. I came here because I felt confident in my abilities to complete the task at hand. 

She kept on even though she was subjected to prejudice. You won’t find my ostrich head anywhere near the beach. But if we can’t cooperate, I’ll find a way to bypass you. I wasn’t going to let myself become [that] depressed and give up. Although I can see how it may work for some individuals, it’s not the path I want to take. At first, she worked as a “human computer,” doing intricate computations by hand. Easley had no trouble adjusting to NASA’s newfound reliance on computers. She studied Fortran and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to become a competent programmer. Easley subsequently worked as an equal employment opportunity consultant, where she influenced policy on problems of racism, as well as sexism in working environments.

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