The Women Tech Forgot

Whether in 1843, 1946 or today, women’s contributions are often ignored.

Comments: 75

  1. Great article, and the Girls Who Code website was very cool.

    I will, however, curse Grace Hopper for inventing Cobol, which I had no aptitude for whatsoever.

  2. I met her when I was 17, and she inspired me years later when I returned to school to morph into an eventual computer engineer. So don't curse her too loudly! She was quite old when I met her but she was amazingly cool and down to earth.

  3. Thank you Betsy!

  4. Thanks for reminding us about these women. There are so many women that the world has forgotten, not just in tech. I am tired of taking classes about the women forgotten in history, forgotten in art, forgotten in math, forgotten in literature, forgotten in science, forgotten in politics, etc. etc.

    Women have been contributing to achievements in every area of life for as long as humans have existed. If you don't know about them, it just means they have been forgotten, NOT that they didn't exist.

    Having children is not the only way to contribute...

  5. LOL, don't believe everything you read, particularly if it's politically correct and in the Times! Ada Lovelace's contribution has hardly been forgotten. There was a well-known computer language named ADA, and Ada Lovelace receives 689,000 hits on Google.

  6. Let's hear more of these terrific stories on achievements by women!

  7. Ada is a programming language named after Ada Lovelace, so she's not forgotten, among programmers at least. To my knowledge Blaise Pascal is the only man imilarly honored.

  8. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember sitting on my bedroom carpet swathed in sunlight, wondering what I would be when I grew up. "I could be a teacher, a nurse, a librarian," I thought. "I could be married to the President of the United States, and if I ever met the Prince Charles, maybe I could be a princess." That was all I could imagine, except that at least knew I'd be a mother. Role models are powerful, as they open up dreams for the future.

  9. "Now, thanks to that college essay, Ms. Lovelace is finally getting her due."


    Ada Lovelace is well known in the tech community, not least because the computer language Ada is named for her.

  10. Women already in the tech community aren't the issue. It's the fact that these women are not in the knowledge base of the general public that's the problem. Many people out of tech will at least recognize the names of Edison or Tesla. Ask them who Hopper is, and they will most likely ask if she's related to "that guy in Easy Rider"...

  11. The premise of this article would be better served if not relegated to the Fashion & Style section of the paper!

  12. And the irony continue: Sandberg doesn't code because she has absolutely no technical background. Funny thing - the CEO of Girls Who Code has never coded and - guess what - has absolutely no technical background.
    What girls need is legitimate role models who actually WALK the walk.
    And - just as a postscript - what degree did young Betsy end up pursuing? Here is a clue - it was not a technical degree either - but that must be another notch in the shield of the software patriarchy.

  13. I dunno. Did Steve Jobs code?

    Can Eric Schmidt code?

    Is Dr. Dre an acoustic engineer? What people need is inspiration?

    Could Churchill fly a Spitfire?

  14. She is not a coder, which is entirely different from never having coded. Most CEOs of organizations that teach tech don't necessarily have fluent tech skills. (In my experience, tech skills and CEO skills don't often co-exist.)

    Also, not sure where you found Betsy Isaacson's major, but I googled her after this comment, and she went to Harvard. No computer science degrees offered there. Engineering is as "tech" as it gets at a liberal arts college.

  15. I am pretty sure Churchill did not start an organization called Prime Ministers Who Fly Spitfires - other than that - well played.
    I am pretty sure Eric has a technical degree (Elec Eng at the PhD level) unlike Sandberg.
    I don't even know how Dr. Dre came up - you do know that he is not a real Doctor - right?

  16. One big problem is that the nerd identity in our society is promoted as being an identity that belongs inherently to the young white male. That pale teenaged boy down the street who fixes your computer, right? We've added Asian males to that category recently. But the expectations are clear. You can see it everywhere in the media, on TV shows and in the advertising. The two nerdy guys, maybe one is Indian, whom we all recognize as establishing Brand Nerd.

    But if you're a nerd who is not a white or Asian male, you don't get that automatic nerd respect that goes to the guys who look the role according to social stereotypes. You get doubted and questioned and always have to identify and explain and prove yourself. Prove that you deserve to carry that nerd card.

    That's a huge social communications burden to put on someone who is in fact a nerd, and therefore is going to be stressed by too much social interaction. I think that has a lot to do with the lack of women in technology. You wind up with two jobs at the same time -- writing code, and explaining to the men how you can be a woman and still be one of them at the same time.

    The first job is easy for a nerd. The second one can make your head explode.

  17. "Nerd respect." That's a good one. The very word is a pejorative. Yes, women face special difficulties, but so do smart boys, particularly in minority communities. We celebrate football players, not geeks.

  18. Why is this article appearing in the Fashion & Style section? Because it is about women? I expect more from the NY Times.

  19. Getting her due? You must be kidding. She is due a lot more than this. Do you think this long due recognition will be sticky? Probably not.

  20. Good article with good detail about Ada Lovelace, etc. But why oh why did this article need to be in the Fashion & Style section? Why not publish it in the Tech section or in the Business section?

  21. The programming language Ada, developed at the behest of the US Department of Defense in the early 1980s and still widely used by DoD contractors and in avionics was named for Ada Lovelace.

  22. Thank you for writing this article. My mother, Jean Jennings Bartik, was one of the six programmers, all women, on the ENIAC.

    I apprciate Mr. Isaacson highighting the story of the ENIAC group --both men and women -- in helping create the computer that started the modern age of electronic computers. My mother certainly agreed that they were all part of a team.

    For readers interested in reading more about the ENIAC programmers, my mother's memoir, "Pioneer Programmer", was published last year by Truman State University Press. This book includes both her stories about the ENIAC, and also stories about her experiences with sexism in the early computer industry. Links to where the book can be found are here:

  23. Penn has not changed much, even though there is a female president (Amy Gutman). Sexism is pervasive, although possibly more subtle and insidious.

  24. You'll be pleased to know that Ada Lovelace's contribution to mathematics is not forgotten by the Lady Actuaries of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries. We held a belated celebration of Ada Lovelace Day at Staple Inn in November 2011. Time perhaps for another.

  25. Thank you, Nick Bilton. I'm planning on reading the book. But why was this published in Fashion & Style? (I checked the online Science section and Book Reviews to see if it was also published there--I didn't see it in either section.) It should have been published in Science and/or Book Reviews. To (re)quote Reshma Saujani, “It’s about role models. You can’t be what you cannot see.” So where are the women and girls who are interested in science, technology, math, and engineering going to SEE this article? It's also important for men and boys to know this history. How many of them will seek it out in "Fashion and Style"? For sure, some will see it. But not as many as would see it where it belongs--in Science.

  26. Except that the "history" in this article is patently false. A search for Ada Lovelace produces 689,000 hits on Google, Charles Babbage, by way of contrast, received 973,000 hits. In other words, much of what this article says is complete rubbish. Ada Lovelace is one of the most famous figures in computing and Grace Hopper, with 493,000 hits, is as well.

    But of course those who read my comment and others like it would never believe that because it's reality based, and they're looking for reinforcement of their political correctness.

  27. Trying to figure out why this story is in "Fashion and Style" instead of, perhaps, "Tech?"

  28. Good story but why is it in the Fashion & Style section instead of Technology or Books???

  29. Probably so more women will read it!

  30. Well it isn't about science or technology, it's a somewhat fantastical collection of claims about social phenomena, half of which are laughably wrong. There have been articles in the Times about the supposedly overlooked Ada Lovelace and if I remember correctly, there have been articles about Grace Hopper as well.

  31. Oh, come on. Everyone who knows anything about computers is familiar with Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. There was even an operating system named ADA. I'm guessing that the girl who learned programming in high school doesn't even know who Charles Babbage and John Von Neumann were.

    Also, it's patently silly to claim that major innovations are essentially the product of groups -- that would among other things contradict the importance of Lovelace and Hopper! Anyone who has experience with engineering knows that while it is a group effort, some engineers are creative geniuses and they are the moving force behind the major innovations, in these sense that while engineering projects require the work of many, if you removed the geniuses the great innovations wouldn't occur.

    i sincerely hope that young women will overcome the stereotype that engineering is solely a male endeavor and I regret the sexism to which the article refers. But really, there's no need for politically correct fantasy here: great developments are the product of genius, and both Lovelace and Hopper are iconic figures in the computer science field and at least as familiar to the general public as key male figures, perhaps even more so.

  32. And Adm Grace Hopper, Dr Franklin (the dark lady of DNA) or Barbara McClintock (jumping genes). One of our nearby communities has three STEM grade/middle schools - Named for Madame Curie, Franklin & McClintock respectively.

    Getting better.

  33. and this excellent article is in fashion & styles because???

  34. So, why is this article in the 'Fashion & Style' section, and not the 'Science' section?

  35. Culturally, we are obviously going backwards if the numbers of women deciding to study computer science has plunged from 37% in 1988 to 0.4% today. Some it is the underlying sexism among men in technology, but it also may be a generational change. The last several younger generations of women seem to have returned to more traditional gender roles of wanting to be and act more feminine. Having successful role models will help, but not if, once the decision is made, the women aren't treated with respect and promotions. Marissa Mayer, with a masters in computer science, plateaued at Google, and some say it was because she was difficult to get along with. Was this assessment due, in part, to a sexist culture at Google? Probably.

  36. Ask yourself why does the female "personality" factor into hiring/firing/advancement decisions when it is not considered the same for men?

  37. Um, what is your definition of "wanting to be and act more feminine"? That statement is far more reflective of its originator than its subject.

  38. Rob L777, not disagreeing with your point about going backwards, but for the sake of accuracy, I want to point out that the 37% to 0.4% stat was poorly stated and misleading. The author said 37% of comp sci DEGREES went to women in 1985, dropping to only 18% in 2010, but then jumped to a completely different and not comparable statistic, saying that now "0.4% of all female college freshmen plan to major in comp sci." That doesn't tell us what % of comp sci degrees women are now getting. It's a great example of terrible writing with statistics.

  39. Cheers to Miss Isaacson. I just spent 7.5 of the most painful years at a major software company. It is so clear I was not welcome. Before the haters get started, I had 20+ fairly happy and successful years in the industry prior and many of my former colleagues and managers are my friends. I worked successfully in the auto industry on the auto manufacturing side and on the railroad as a brakeman. Not to say there weren't comments and some bad behavior, but they didn't extend to sabotage which was so obvious one of my customers exposed it to me. I was able to resolve every inappropriate incident with my direct managers, which may have been a mistake. At the software company, sabotage against me (which was really sabotage against the customer - let's not forget priorities) was deliberately overlooked by my managers. Completely demoralizing.

    Thanks to this article, I understand the precedent for this bad behavior and the stultifying result with women in the field. Exposing the bad behavior and the result might actually make some change. It might actually have these weak managers see how tolerating bad behavior can hurt the team. Or possibly, since there is always someone "younger, smarter, cheaper" out there, it might not.

  40. Great article. Ironic and somewhat infuriating that it is located in the Fashion & Style section of the online edition.

  41. But the target audience is here...

  42. Only half of it. The gentlemen need to see it as well.

  43. The truth is that there are girls/women who have never had formal training in coding, but who can do it. I worked for years as a secretary in an office that had no web specialist - this was in the early days of the web - and I learned many different things on the fly - on the JOB. For years. Then I got moved into a largely male, IT-oriented office (eager to learn more) and got a rude shock when I began to realize that none of the guys took me seriously. I came to realize it was a combination of good old fashioned sexism, but also something more insidious, which is "toxic professionalism" where professionals look down on people who learned their skills outside of a formal environment. And the world is full of young white male professionals. I didn't have a degree in web development or IT, but I knew how to get a website up and running, I knew current standards and I even knew some skills they didn't know (but it was hard to communicate this to them because they saw me as "the former secretary"). After several years in this situation, I have to admit, I lost my enthusiasm for coding. If this was the wider world of coding waiting for me, I didn't want to enter it. And really, that is what you get - a terrible mismatch between knowledgeable older women with skills, and young guys who are proud professionals and, probably, just a bit sexist.

  44. A technician once told me about a woman who had joined the technical staff that he was going to get her fired because "I ain't gonna work with no broad"!

    Women get so discourage by this stuff. But we guys face a gauntlet too when we join an organization. When I got one of my first engineering jobs I was handed an almost impossible project, at which (with a lot of sweat) I accomplished with aplomb. Later, an older member of the department told me that he was the one who suggested I be given the project because he assumed that I would fail!

    There's lots of this and worse in the workplace, but you can't get discouraged because if you're working in a male environment it's going to be competitive and some guys will hit below the belt. You have to keep at it and prove yourself and you can't let it get under your skin, or the guys who are out to get you will succeed.

  45. "When I got one of my first engineering jobs I was handed an almost impossible project, at which (with a lot of sweat) I accomplished with aplomb. "

    Yes. You were handed a project. Key phrase in your post.

    I can't remember who said this, but a perceptive man once said, "I used to resent it when people acted like I, as a white man, was somehow privileged. Because I worked hard for everything and I earned my rewards. Then later in life I realized that being rewarded for your hard work IS the privilege."

    I was never given any coding projects to work on, even when I asked if I could help and tried to communicate my skills.

  46. Why complain about the placement of this one article in the Fashion section? As a marketing move, it makes sense. Does one really need to go on full feminist alert for this? If the book is any good, and even if it is not, I'm sure it will show up in many places over time.

  47. It might make sense as a marketing move for Walter Isaacson but the NYTimes is not his promotions manager. I'll bet there are lots of books about lots of issues that might appeal to the "Fashion and Style" demo, or that might appreciate the marketing boost from seeing an article in the section. But The Times is supposed to exercise news judgment and place articles where they logically belong no?

  48. It needs to be in the business section so that men will read it. Having only other women acknowledging our contributions and capabilities won't make any cultural or economic changes. Men need to stop being blinded by revisionist history so that they will support equality in opportunities.

  49. I second the call to place this article in its proper section, for the reasons Vbass and Nancy Coleman cite. This should have nothing to do with "marketing," or feminism for that matter—it's an article about the innovation in technology that women brought and were not sufficiently recognized for. That makes it relevant to business and technology, NOT fashion and style. Unless of course we're talking wearables but I doubt Ada would have been thrilled with Google Glass.

  50. Ada Lovelace is recognized and known by a lot of if not most people who study Computer Science (or even Mathematics). The language, Ada, which was one of the first object-oriented languages, was named in her honor. That language was widely studied (though not used in mainstream computing) in the 1980's. It was quite a decent language and probably should have become more mainstream.

    [It was not an operating system.]

  51. Mark, yes, you're absolute right and I apologize for the error.

  52. Yes, Mark, and it's important for people NOT in computer science (or even mathematics) ALSO know about women's contributions to this field.

  53. Why don't we just get it over with and set 50% Nobel prize quotas for women so we can all get back to work! Better yet why not set their quota at 90% for a few hundred years to so our political and media 1% class can add yet another patronage, slavishly loyal dependency group to their roster. Ah, no wait a minute! We ought to do that to ..... 'make up' for past injustices by giving mostly Ivy League educated wealthy women affirmative action jobs and awards they do not deserve. No wait a minute! That does not sound quite progressive enough so what other narrative can some self identified as superior intellectual entrepreneur dream up. Come on folks the pay off media prize will be big for the most emotional and none rational fantasy 'story'.

  54. Wow - you sound really angry. I can guess you have some serious problem with this article about 1) a proud father and his successful, achieving daughter 2) women in the Ivy League 3) the computing industry and community or 4) women in general.

    I sympathize for your pain and assure you, no one wants anything that can't be honestly earned, and like you, all anyone wants is a fair chance to compete and contribute in a productive and effective environment. Let's not fly off the handle here.

    Are you actually saying wrongfully taking credit for another's work is fair and should be rewarded? Did you actually read the article or just assume the content. Just asking.

  55. Sleepyhead, I reacted negatively to the article too. It isn't that there wasn't discrimination against women in technology -- there was and is. It isn't that women who were interested in technology weren't discouraged, and aren't. It's that the article veered wildly away from truth, making outrageous contrafactual claims, e.g., that the contributions of Ada Lovelace aren't known and recognized (perhaps to excess) or that technological development is a group endeavor in which back room coders deserve the same credit as geniuses.

    As someone says above, when these topics are covered in the Times, it's all about the narrative, rather than an objective analysis of the facts.

  56. Josh, that's good to know. You might belong to a later generation than I do, or have a broader view of industry people. I had never heard of Ada Lovelace, but I go back to the days of Fortran, when we spent time talking about Hollerith.

    The point of diversity isn't just about the geniuses though. There are those few, but there is a lot of opportunity for talented folks of either gender. There are always a number of contributors, some of whom might not be geniuses, who are required to fully develop and bring a product to market. The lack of diversity hurts the prospective employee, but also hurts the enterprise, since you need that one lone voice who can save a project from an overlooked pitfall. I've seen it many times and been that voice, which is not fun and required a lot more guts than it should have.

    As far as an objective analysis goes, I think there are lots of figures and data, but one of the first things I learned was liars can figure. This is an area for intellectual humility and emotional maturity, not just objective analysis. The narrative in the article about casually removing women from the common historical account is significant. The objective analysis in the article is pretty clear - when women with CS degrees decrease to 0.4% 30 years after the rahrah 80's, that's significant. It's been a long time since corporate diversity had any juice, and that's going to cost us.

  57. Please, as Josh Hill states, anything about computers is familiar with Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. I have a degree in Computer Science from the 80s and the achievement of the two were constantly mentioned even back then. In fact if you had asked me about the pioneers I would have probably been able to come up with Babbage, Lovelace and that woman in the Navy (Hopper). Nothing like the media to try to inflame our "injustice sensors" by claiming some non-white-men group is being slighted, ignored, persecuted, or paid less. Remember, a lot of people make their living or find meaning in setting setting off the public's indignation. Not that their isn't plenty injustice in the world, but just be careful about the motive's and accuracy of who is trying to "set you straight."

  58. great - you with a computer degree know about the women in that field's history. Wouldn't it be great if EVERYONE knew?

  59. The whole problem is that girls, their friends, their parents and teachers do not know about these women role models in computer science. I didn't know about them until I studied computer science and specifically, Ada, the programming language. I had no female role model when I entered engineering school. Many women who do get into the field are rebellious and independent (therefore, the tough kind) because we must go against all the negative comments about our choice. My high school teachers advised me to choose medical school if I "liked science so much".

    Steve Jobs is a household name. It would be great if we hear more about women technology visionaries like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and others.

  60. How come the Times didn't use a pic of the female CS pioneers that Isaacson profiled? Funny that the sad oversight at Penn those many years ago is replayed, inadvertantly I guess, by the story purporting to celebrate women's accomplishments in CS. So once again, the face of computer science that the public sees is a guy's, unless the public takes the time to look closer. I thought the NYT would help us with that.

  61. Interesting piece. But where's the fashion? Where's the style? I was looking forward to reading about Ada Lovelace's incredible fashion sense. Seriously have you guys seen that incredible circlet and lace shawl she wears in her oil portrait? And those WWII programming ladies, Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder. Wow. Can we talk about how great 40s fashion was? Why didn't Bilton talk about that? I mean the Times is great at letting me know about Yvonne Brill's killer beef stroganoff, why did you fall apart when it came to these coder ladies? (And PS could you get me Brill's stroganoff recipe? You say it was great after all).

  62. And just why is this story in the Styles section??? Shouldn't it be on the front page of the Business section???

  63. This article belongs in your Technology or Science or Business section.
    Placing this article in the Fashion & Style section is blatantly sexist. I expect more from the editors at the Times.

  64. The most amazing thing about Lady Lovelace's accomplishment is that she wrote a computer language long before any computer existed.

    She was, by the way, Lord Byron's daughter and had access to mathematical training.

    Charles Babbage had invented a "difference engine" and she was familiar with his work. That invention and others of his could not be built at the time because the technology did not exist to do so.

    As for Adm. Hopper's "computer bug", computers used to be programmed by plugging in things in the same way as an old fashioned telephone operator had to do.

    When a program stopped running, she found the culprit - some kind of bug. So she literally "debugged" the program/computer by extracting the intruder with, I think, tweezers.

  65. So, is Betsy Isaacson listed as a co-author of at least the chapters on Ada Lovelace? Or was her research appropriated?

  66. This is the first thing I thought as well. Why isn't her name on the front of the book? Sheesh.

  67. This isn't just a problem in the Tech world, it is a problem in any and all areas that are characterized by wealth or power, and or are male dominated, be it science, engineering, highly paid blue collar jobs i.e. skilled trades and union jobs (which granted hardly exist anymore), law, medicine, let's see, pretty much you name it if it pays well. oh yeah , and then there's politics, another male dominated career choice, lousy pay but great side benefits, like power. and high paid lobbyist positions after retirement.
    have to laugh - news flash - the boys are taking all the credit for what the girls did. how many times have I experienced that? too many... the only way to get more women into any single field, is to get more women into all of them, dare I say it? gender quotas. especially in politics.

  68. I am so disappointed in the NYTimes that such an important and interesting article on pioneering women in science and technology was placed in the Style section. It belongs in either the Science, Tech, or Business section. It's hard enough that women have to contend with implicit bias every day, the placement of the article is a whopping example of explicit bias.

  69. It sounds as if Betsy Isaacson should be sharing credit on the book -- her research and passion inspired the book and, apparently, her college essay informs the material of both the opening and closing chapters. I, too, am curious about what credit Betsy Isaacson is getting for her research. How ironic it would be if she has also been "erased."

    If so, she will join a long line of extraordinary women who have not been given the credit they deserve: Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission but was usurped by her partners Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman who didn't even mention her name when they accepted the Nobel Prize...and, of course, Rosalind Franklin whose research on the double helix structure of DNA was appropriated by Watson and Crick who went on a campaign to publicly disparage her.

  70. I predict this book will sell far fewer copies than "Steve Jobs" because it centers on achieving women.

  71. Anyone interested in Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, would do well to check out Lynn Hershman Leeson's 1997 film _Conceiving Ada_, in which the inimitable Tilda Swinton portrays the proto-programmer. It's not a biopic, but a strange and interesting creation, and worth seeing.

    I'm a little dismayed to hear that a biographer of Steve Jobs was somehow ignorant of Ada's place in history (even if it might not be as grand as some have claimed), but delighted that his daughter helped to fill in his knowledge gap and spur him to do further research.

  72. Why is this in the Fashion and Style section instead of the Science section? Way to perpetuate the same old stereotypes and ensure that some (male) folks who need to see this won't. Infuriating.