The gender gap is persistent, and it is real. According to the World Economic Forum, gender parity will not be realized until the 20s…. the 2120s, that is.
The tech industry remains one of the gender gap’s worst offenders, and as a result many people are simply unaware of the influential role women have played in the development of modern technology since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Despite facing social, political, and economic barriers their male counterparts did not have to endure, many of history’s tech pioneers have been women. Their achievements are recognizable throughout modern technology and areas of scientific knowledge which continue to make their mark today.
Here’s a snippet of just a few female difference-makers who challenged the established conventions and expectations of their world – and inspire us to do the same in ours.
18th century – tracing the origins of women in tech
During much of the 18th and 19th centuries, women did not have the right to participate in the political process across most of the world, and were closed off from serving in many key professions. It’s enough to make you wonder how much further society would have advanced if over half of the population had not been largely excluded from scientific and technological fields.
Yet despite these structural barriers, women contributed in important ways to the technological advances of that time. In 1762, Nicole Reine Lepautre, a French mathematician and astronomer, accurately predicted the return of Halley’s Comet by calculating the timing of a solar eclipse and constructing a group of catalogs for the stars.
Halley’s Comet, which has been observed and recorded by humans since 240 BC, is the only known comet that can appear twice in a human lifetime. Nicole Reine Lepautre’s research contributed significantly to our understanding of the comet and its regular reappearance. Hopefully, by the next time Halley’s Comet comes around in 2061, the last outdated relics of gender bias – in both the tech world as well as society as a whole – will have been fully dismantled.
19th century – women in STEM defying the odds
Although women started being offered the possibility not only to study, but also to teach in colleges during the 19th century, female faculty members were forced to quit if they decided to get married. It’s no wonder that balancing career and family is still such a central topic when it comes to modern day discussions of gender equality.
But neither formal obstacles, nor the sole responsibility for caring for the home, could hold back women like Ada Lovelace – who is recognized today as one of the first computer programmers. Lovelace is best known for her work on the Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer proposed by Charles Babbage which calculated algebraic functions over 100 years before the first general purpose computer.
Lovelace’s impact on our world of tech should be quite familiar – having discovered that her colleague’s machine could have applications beyond basic mathematical calculation, she is credited with publishing the very first algorithm.
Early 20th century – women on the battlefields of engineering, mathematics, and world wars
The second Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s intensified women’s interaction with technology. Later, women played in integral role working in factories, as telephone operators, and even as snipers during both world wars. Amelia Earhart, meanwhile, is famous for being one of the early pioneers of aviation.
Behind these more visible contributions, there is also a rich history of women making an impact in highly technical fields. Building on the legacy of Ada Lovelace, the German mathematician and philosopher Grete Hermann was instrumental in establishing algorithms for abstract algebra, which served as a steppingstone for modern-day computer algebra.
Hermann also made important contributions to the theory of quantum mechanics.