"We Need to Teach 'HERstory'": Do you Know These Remarkable Women in Tech?

December 5, 2019 | Katrina Hinrichsen


One of the biggest highlights and takeaways from day 2 of our European Women in Technology 2019 conference was Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon, CEO of Stemettes, and Corinne Vigreux, Co-Founder of TomTom, addressing the need for more STEM-driven education and the need to share the 'HERstory' behind tech and science. Following this, we explore some of the unsung women in tech history. See how many you already know.

In Imafidon's words, "it's not only about dead white guys. We need to have more films, we need to have more shows, we need to teach 'HERstory".

A lot of young girls (and boys) only hear about male figures like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs as role models in the tech industry. But, there are so many women who pioneered areas of tech and didn't receive the level of credit they deserved. Using Vigreux herself as an example, Imafidon commented that she should have named her company 'VigreuxVigreux', instead of 'TomTom', as then everyone would know who she was.

Take a moment now and think. How many women in tech can you name from history? How much of what you know is quite literally, 'his-story'?

Below is an outline of some of the incredible yet unsung women in tech:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852): inventor of scientific computing


Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, was an English mathematician and writer, mostly known for her work on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a proposed mechanical general-purpose computer which was the precursor to the modern computer.

Thanks to Lovelace's notes on the engine, she is widely regarded as the first computer programmer, although she received little public recognition during her lifetime. Indeed, in her time, men feared that "the very great tension of mind which [sophisticated mathematics] requires is beyond a woman’s physical power". 

Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is a celebration of the achievements of women in STEM. It hopes to inspire younger generations to compete in the tech space by growing the profile of women in STEM and, in doing so, produce new role models.


Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921): influential in the discovery of Hubble's Law

In 1893, after graduating college, Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a 'computer'. It was an era where there were people who performed maths calculations since there weren't yet computers to do them for us. While at Harvard, Leavitt discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her findings were hugely influential and led to Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding - what we now call Hubble’s Law.


Grace Hopper (1906-1992): wrote the first compiler


Hopper helped pioneer computer programming by developing the first compiler for a computer programming language. She once said that "humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We’ve always done it this way'. I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise".

She upheld this trailblazing attitude throughout her career. She worked on UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer in the US, and is credited with coining the term 'computer bug'. She also invented FLOW-MATIC – the first English-like data processing language – which led to the development of COBOL, which became the Navy’s standard operating language.

Hopper was an IEEE Fellow, and the winner of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award 1964. In 1973, she became the first woman and first person from America to ever be honoured as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Just an all-round incredible woman, really.


Sister Mary Kenneth Keller (1913-1985): first female computer science PhD

A visionary female role model, Sister Mary was the first woman to receive a PhD in Computer Science. She knew that the world was "having an information explosion… and information is of no use unless it’s available". So, she challenged Dartmouth's 'men-only' rule in choosing to study maths and computer science. Keller also assisted with the development of BASIC computer language at Dartmouth, and founded and directed the computer science department at Clarke College for 20 years. Without a doubt, her contribution made computer use and the study of STEM subjects more accessible and appealing to women across the world.


Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000): inventor of WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS


As Imafidon stated at her fireside chat at European Women in Tech 2019, "people shouldn't use WiFi, if they don't think that women can do technology". That's because we have a woman to thank for pioneering tech that would form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth communication systems.

Lamarr had an extraordinary inventive prowess, and once said, "improving things comes naturally to me". Her role as the 'mother of WiFi' came about when Lamarr met George Antheil, a composer who shared her passion for innovation, and together they came up with a new communication system with the intention of guiding torpedoes to their targets in war. It involved the use of 'frequency hopping' amongst radio waves, which prevented their interception and thereby allowed the torpedo to find its intended target.

Yet, as a Hollywood actress and natural beauty, society has long ignored the fact that Lamarr was an inventive genius. The Navy decided against the implementation of her system and the patent expired before she saw a penny from it. So, it wasn’t until her later years that she received any awards for her invention. Lamarr was awarded The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1997, became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, and in 2014, was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology. 


Top Secret Rosies (cir. 1942): the world's first computer programmers

The 'Top Secret Rosies' were the female 'computers' of WWII - a group of women whose lives changed forever when, on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It caused the Army to launch a frantic national search for female mathematicians, and in doing so, gave them rare career opportunities that would have been unbeknownst to them otherwise.

Among these group of women were Betty Jean Jennings, a young freshman from Missouri, twins Doris and Shirley Blumberg from Philadelphia, and Marlyn Wescoff, who was completing a degree in Mathematics Education from Temple University. These women became ballistics 'computers' during the war and Jennings ended up as one of the first programmers of ENIAC.

All were subjects of the documentary film, Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII, which follows their journey in helping to win the war and usher in the modern computer age.


Katherine Johnson (b.1918): aided Apollo missions


A physicist, space scientist and mathematician, Johnson made an impressive contribution to America’s aeronautics and space program with the early application of electronic computers at NASA. She calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, and in 1970, also worked on Apollo 13’s mission to the moon. The mission was aborted and Johnson’s work on backup procedures and charts helped the crew to return safely to earth. She even co-authored the first textbook on space travel.

Johnson was also important for encouraging racial diversity in STEM, as she was selected as one of the first three black students —and the first black woman—to attend the West Virginia state’s newly-integrated graduate school program.

Johnson is now 101 years old. After spending much of her life as a hidden historical figure, she was finally brought to greater prominence as a feature of the 2017 film Hidden Figures, which shone a light on her and other pioneering African-American women of NASA's space program. In 2015 she received recognition on a national scale, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Beatrice Helen Worsley (1921-1972): Canada's female computer pioneer

Worsley was influential to computer science, and was the first female computer scientist in Canada. Before her untimely death at the age of 50, she wrote the first program to run on EDSAC, co-wrote the first compiler for Toronto's Ferranti Mark 1, wrote numerous papers in computer science - including 17 published papers, and taught computers and engineering at Queen's University and the University of Toronto for over 20 years.


Annie Easley (1933-2011): instrumental in hybrid car batteries


Easley jumped from being a 'human computer' to a computer programmer while working at an agency that would become NASA. Running simulations at a 'Reactor Lab', she was one of only four African-American employees. She is well-known in certain circles for her work encouraging women and people of colour to enter STEM fields. Later, her work as a programmer involved energy conversion systems. According to NASA, she "developed and implemented code" that led to the development of the battery used in the first hybrid cars. You're welcome, Prius drivers.


Mary Allen Wilkes (b.1937): helped develop the first 'personal computer' and 'WFH'

Not only did Wilkes help develop what is now considered the first 'personal computer', she was also the first person to have a PC in her home. She worked on the LINC computer as a programmer and instructions author. She's credited with writing the LINC's operating program manual, and was also the programmer of the LAP6 operating system for the LINC. In a 2011 interview, she revealed that she even took the LINC home with her in order to write the operating system, and that actually helped to make working remotely a reality for so many of us today. It goes without saying that a lot of people are thankful for that!


Radia Perlman (b.1951): 'mother of the internet'

Perlman created the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), which is a vital part of the internet’s underlying foundation. Despite this, she insists the "internet was not invented by any individual" and that "in engineering, the point is to get the job done, and people are happy to help. You should be generous with credit, and you should be happy to help others".


Carol Shaw (b.1955): first female video game designer


After gaining formative experience at Atari, Shaw joined Activision where she programmed the classic scrolling shooter, River Raid. She’s also responsible for popular games such as 3D Tic Tac Toe, Super Breakout, and Happy Trails. Her co-worker, Mike Albaugh, stated of Shaw that she "was simply the best programmer of the 6502 and probably one of the best programmers period... in particular, [she] did the [2600] kernels, the tricky bit that actually gets the picture on the screen for a number of games that she didn't fully do the games for. She was the go-to gal for that sort of stuff." 

'HERstory' is not a new term - in fact it was used as early as the 1970s, when Robin Morgan wrote about how she identified as a member of W.I.T.C.H, 'Women Inspired To Commit Herstory'. It then resurfaced again in 2016 with a #HERstory digital campaign.

It does, however, need so much more leverage. We need to shout about the women who have shaped humanity and have made a significant difference to our lives through innovations in STEM and the tech industry.

So, join our community of inspirational female leaders and trailblazers. Follow us on TwitterLinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook to keep up to date with everything in our Women in Tech World Series.

With events spanning from Silicon Valley to London and even South Africa, there are plenty of opportunities to be a part of our movement to commit HERstory. You can also do so by signing up for European Women in Technology 2020 with our First Look Pass: