We wouldn’t be as nearly as advanced in computer programming without the contributions of women throughout the past two hundred years (check out our post on the women who pioneered computer programming). Luckily, now there is a large movement towards giving women the credit and recognition they deserve in the field of programming. However, even though men dominate the computing world currently, that workforce used to be primarily made up of women (shockingly, the sky didn’t come down about everyone’s ears).
In the 1940s and 50s, computer programming was viewed as menial and repetitive labor, i.e. a job perfect for women (🙄). When the ENAIC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was nearing completion as the first programmable, large-scale computer in 1945, six women -- Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman -- were hired randomly from Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. These women were the first paid, full-time programmers, and they worked hard, especially considering that they were basically starting from scratch. There was no precedence to build off of, and they spent hours explaining to ENAIC how to solve complicated mathematical equations.
When ENAIC was introduced to the public in 1946, the Army, the hardware engineers, John Eckert and John Mauchly, and even the University of Pennsylvania were lavished with praise. The programmers, demeaningly referred to as “refrigerator ladies” to mean that they were only there to make the computer look good (like models who posed with cars and appliances), were not invited to any press conferences, events, or interviews.
Unfortunately, some man then realized that programming actually took a considerable amount of talent, knowledge, and skill, so women were quickly pushed out of the industry. Because of this realization, there is now a severe underrepresentation of women in the programming, testing, and AI fields. In 2020, only 28.8% of women in computing in the US were comprised of women. As of 2018, only 4% of that tech world were women of color; an abysmal percentage considering that 16% of the US general population are women of color. Even amidst these numbers, there are some outstanding women in AI that come from diverse backgrounds like Timnit Gebru, Daphne Koller, and Devi Parikh.
A co-founder of Black in AI, Timnit Gebru is an advocate for diversity in the AI world. But her work in global communities is not the only way she contributes: Gebru is a leader in Ethical AI. AI and ML programs can become biased against demographics like women and African Americans, so ethical AI prevents this bias, ensures that the owners take responsibility for any bias, and also makes AI more environmentally conscious. Gebru was featured in The Economist for her work on Predicting Demographics Using 50 Million Images. She used AI to take images of cars from Google Street View and predict education, race, income, and plenty of other demographic information.
Daphne Koller is an Israeli-American programmer working with ML in drug development. The company she co-founded, insitro, uses ML to discover and develop drugs more efficiently. Inistro predicts which formulae are more likely to lead to creating successful medicine, which saves money by preventing multiple failures. Another programming success of Koller is that she co-founded Coursera, one of the top online platforms for getting certificates and degrees through online lectures and self-paced learning. It’s not so much AI, but still a very important development in e-learning!
Women in technology have also resulted in improved quality of life for certain people. Devi Parikh from India is developing AI to help the visually impaired. With Visual Question Answering, She teaches computers to answer questions based on images. This has the potential to help the legally blind navigate through life with the help of AI. Parikh has a highly successful career in tech as an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing and a research scientist at Facebook AI.
Even though women have done so much for the advancement of AI and computer programming, there is still a rather enraging wage gap that exists. In the UK, 78% of organizations have admitted to there being a gender pay gap - that number is already too high, but there are likely companies that wouldn’t admit to a gap, so the percentage is likely even more concerning. Women in tech earn about 28% less than men, and this shouldn’t be acceptable.
Women are a vital part of the world of technology, coding, and AI. They should, at the very least, be recognized as much as men are and definitely paid the same! Just because women and men think differently doesn’t mean that one is inherently more valuable than the other. Women only represent 14% of people in software engineering, and only 12% of AI researchers are women. Why do men get all the fun jobs? The future is female! It’s time that the technology industry starts to reflect that.