Gender disparity in STEM is unfortunately not a new development, despite women being on the frontlines of innovating the industry.
The movie “Hidden Figures” is about Katherine Johnson, the Black female mathematician who hand-calculated the re-entry trajectory of John Glenn’s historic spaceflight and pioneered coding and software engineering at NASA for decades. A recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” chronicles the journeys of even earlier coding heroines, and the reason behind today’s gender imbalance in tech, especially in coding and software design.
Early women pioneers
Lady Ada Lovelace was the first known female coder. While her brother Lord Byron was fighting wars and writing poetry, Lady Lovelace wrote an algorithm for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in 1843; the model is on display at the Computer History Museum.
Using symbolic logic learned in her philosophy courses at Wellesley, Mary Allen Wilkes was an early coder at MIT. When state law mandated that Elsie Shutt give up her computing job after giving birth, Elsie founded a “work-from-home” computer company for women with childcare responsibilities, training her female coders after hours on rented computers.
In these days, the men did the early hardware engineering and women were the coders. Women like Hedy Lamarr, Jean Bartik, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper are among the illustrious coding pioneers. From World War II until the 70’s women made up a significant percentage of computer programmers. This changed with the advent of personal computers in U.S. homes in the 70’s, when parents were more likely to buy a PC for their sons — who were twice as likely to receive one. Thus, by the late 1980’s, men were dominating both the hard and soft sides of computer technology, entering college with a leg-up in coding. Popular culture re-enforced this phenomenon by featuring young white men at keyboards. The storied 150-year history of women in computing went dark, depriving women, especially women of color, of a treasure-trove of heroes to admire and follow into the modern Silicon Age.
Women can lead once again
It is time to re-right this ship. Broadcom Foundation is teaming up with the Raspberry Pi Foundation to help women gain equal footing in computer technology and software design through early engagement in coding. The Foundation is taking the following steps to help girls become confident coders before they enter high school and college:
1. Collaborate with Raspberry Pi Foundation to establish Code Clubs, especially in under-resourced communities where kids of all color and first-generation can get a handle on coding at an early age in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Raspberry Pi resources are free to all.
2. Team up boys and girls when they are introduced to coding to avoid the trap that sex defines aptitude, a myth long-disabused by history and science. Working in groups helps boys and girls learn to communicate and problem-solve together, tapping into each other’s creative ideas and learning from their collective mistakes that help build a solid foundation for confident collaboration in the workplace. Hackathons and meetups provide a wonderful way to expand team-building skills once they get the hang of coding.
3. Work with Science Buddies and other STEM learning resource nonprofits to open the portals to an array of careers that yield coding skills.
4. Build Wikipedia content to include coders “who look like me” with unsung STEM women heroes through WikiEdy.org.
Next to “Hidden Figures,” my favorite movie is “The Martian” where a female computer engineer teams with a young Black physicist to calculate her spaceship’s return to save the stranded astronaut from certain death on the Red Planet. These fictional heroes represent our robust future workforce if everyone joins Broadcom Foundation in introducing all young people — especially women — to the fun and excitement of coding at an early age.