Get with the program!

Grace Hopper was a prominent figure in computer programming. The Grace Murray Hopper Award was named after her and is given to people 35 or younger who have made great contributions to computer science.

In an online seminar held on Oct. 19, Janet Abbate, a Virginia Tech professor of science, technology and society, spoke on how gender has shaped opportunities in the workforce over the decades.

During her lecture, Abbate talked about the 1950s and the three different theories of who would be the best at programming.

Some thought it was those who had previous experience; others thought it was those with a college education or that it was just natural talent that made people successful in programming.

This last idea helped many women get into the field by allowing them to take skill assessments to prove they had what it took to be a programmer.

Because of this, many women came across computer programming fields unintentionally.

One of these women was Hilary Kahn, a computer scientist who originally started her studies in classic archeology. Kahn changed her field of study after taking a computing program and discovering her love for computers.

While Kahn was at Newcastle University, she was introduced to programming an English Electric KDF9. In 1967, she began teaching how to program computers at the University of Manchester.

Abbate said many women are going down other career paths when they could be thriving in computer programming. Abbate spoke about Kahn and other pioneering women of the field as examples to what their potential could reach.

Grace Hopper is another woman who was foundational to the computer programming field. Hopper has an award known as the Grace Murray Hopper Award named after her. This award is gifted to individuals 35 or younger who have made great contributions to the field of computer science.

Hopper is also responsible for the term debugging. In 1947, Hopper and her associates were working in the lab when the computer was showing an error. Hopper found a moth in a relay, and after removing it, the error was resolved. This is why issues in code are referred to as bugs.

Thelma Estrin was a mathematician who was frustrated by the issue of not having a women’s restroom in the building she worked in. Instead, she used the men’s restroom and suggested that everyone whistle while in the restroom to let people know that there were other people in the bathroom.

“I imagine that was the most musical restroom in a computing department,” Abbate said.

Restrooms weren’t the only issue that these women dealt with when trying to work on these machines. Some were not allowed to be in the computer rooms for fear they would distract the men. They were also told not to work at night with men in case something sexual happened.

Men would also put pinup pictures around the workspaces in this field, making these early women feel uncomfortable.

Abbate spoke about a group of women working at one of these computing labs who dealt with this issue by buying a Playgirl magazine and pinning the photos up around the room to show the men they work with how uncomfortable it was to have lewd photos of your gender peppered around the room.