The IT world is studded with notable scientists, inventors, researchers, and outstanding personalities. As far as the stereotype goes, it's a man's world. But that's not entirely true. Women aren’t always on the scientific sidelines, despite the challenges associated with gender imbalance in IT. In fact, a lot of essential inventions came into existence thanks to women.
In the spirit of International Women's Day, we want to highlight the most prominent women in the tech industry who continue to inspire thousands of women to choose technology and sciences as a career path. Let's dive in.
Famous women in technology: Past
Contribution: Created first computer algorithm
Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the founder of computer science, creator of the first software program, and prophet of the computing age.
Considered the first famous woman in technology, Ada indeed was ahead of her time. Born in the family of famous English poet Lord Byron, she had a knack for sciences and maths, which was unusual for a girl at that time. At the age of 17, she met Charles Babbage, the creator of Analytical Engine, which is considered the first computing machine on Earth whose principles laid the foundation for modern сomputers. Long story short, Charles hired Ada as an assistant and tasked her with translating his works into French. Ada did an amazing job. Not only did she translate the description of Analytical Engine but also supplemented it with copious notes that contained equations and formulas she came up with for calculating Bernoulli numbers. To this day, this formula is known as the first computer program ever written.
Ada is often referred to as a prophet because she had an idea that the machine could produce music on its own, given that pitches and composition theory can be broken into formulas and fed to the machine.
Contribution: Created transmission technology behind modern Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth
Hedy Lamarr is an Austrian-American actress and inventor. No one could imagine that one of the highest paying actresses would abandon her acting career to break into the science field (and even make a splash there), given that she didn't even have relevant education.
It began in 1940 when Germany sank an American evacuation ship with 77 children aboard. Hedy was so moved by the tragedy that she couldn't stay aside. Together with George Antheil, an American composer and her close friend, she set about working on a novel, remotely controlled signal transmission system for a torpedo that could not be intercepted by enemies. In a nutshell, the idea behind it was using a random code on the transmitter that would change the transmission channel so that it couldn't be intercepted. The technology was named "Hopping Frequencies." Although it was skeptically received by the government, mainly because non-specialists developed it, Lamarr and Antheil received a patent two years later. The technology received the credit it deserved during the Caribbean crisis in 1962.
Besides the military field, "Hopping Frequencies" principles are under the hood of modern communication technologies, such as Bluetooth, COFDM (Wi-Fi), GSM, and CDMA (wireless phones). In 2004, Hedy Lamarr's name was included in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the USA.
Karen Spärck Jones
Contribution: Created language processing technology underlying modern search engines
Karen's innovative idea is that instead of interacting with computers using numbers and equations, they can be taught to understand human language. Google can understand the words we type them up, and this is what Karen Spärck Jones can take full credit for.
Karen Spärck Jones was born in Yorkshire, England, and went to Grinton College in Cambridge, where she majored in history and philosophy. After graduation, she briefly worked as a school teacher before joining the language research department at Cambridge University, focusing on machine speech processing. In her line of work, she found synonyms to words and put them into punched cards, the early data carriers. The purpose of Karen's work was to train a machine to recognize the words' contextual meanings. For example, in the sentence "a farmer works in the field," the polysemantic word "field" has many meanings. By adding a context, like "agriculture," the machine would choose the correct meaning of the word "field," such as "land."
Spärck Jones published a breakthrough paper that laid the foundation for the technology behind modern search engines based on her work at Cambridge. The main idea she elaborated in her paper was to combine statistics with linguistics, a novel approach that allowed computers to interpret relations between words using formulas. By 2007, most search engines were running on the principles described in her paper, making Karen Spärck Jones one of the most famous women in technology whose contribution is often overlooked.
Female technology leaders: Present
Radia Joy Perlman
Contribution: developed the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP)
Although Radia Perlman owns many patents for Internet-related technology, her main invention remains the STP channel protocol used for routing the Internet traffic. Back in the 80s, it was a novelty that has transformed the Ethernet from a technology limited by a hundred nodes to a technology that can serve a massive network. For all we know, it wouldn't be the Internet as we know it today if it wasn't for Radia's work.
Radia was born on January 1, 1951, in Portsmouth, Virginia, in a family of American government workers. Science ran in the family, given that her father worked as a radar engineer and her mother was a programmer.
Radia Perlman made her first significant contribution to IT when she was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She developed a children's version of LOGO education robotic language, which she named TORTIS. Thus, Radia is considered a pioneer in teaching computer programming to young children.
Radia designed the STP working at Digital Equipment Corporation, where she also invented several other important protocols. For example, the routing protocol called "link-state routing" and the IS-IS protocol, which is now the preferred routing protocol for most modern Internet service providers. She has also contributed largely to the security of the Internet.
Perelman is often referred to as "Mother of the Internet," thanks to her fruitful work in the field. Yet, she brushes off this stigma modestly, emphasizing that although her invention mattered, she wasn't the only one contributing to Internet development. Hence, she isn't in a position to take full credit for the creation of the Internet.
Contribution: developed an ARM processor, which is widely used in modern mobile devices
Sophie Wilson is a British scientist and the pioneer of the first commercially viable personal computers. She was born in 1957 in Leeds, England, and studied Informatics at the University of Cambridge. Inspired by MK-14, a microcomputer kit, she developed her own microcomputer with a 6502 processor with 64 Mb operation memory. After graduation, Sophie joined Acorn Computers, a famous computer company.
Her contribution elevated the company to new heights. In the early 80s, Sophie Wilson worked on the expansion of the BASIC language for the Acorn Atom computer. She aimed to transform Atom into an improved version, Proton. In under a week, Wilson developed everything, from the system board to components and software. It ended in resounding success, given that British Broadcasting Corporation signed up Acorn Computers and started using this invention.
The invention of her lifetime, the ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) chip, began in 1983, when she was working on manuals for the first RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) processors. She managed to decrease the number of instructions required for the microprocessor's proper functioning and reduced the number of transistors to a bare minimum, even less than in Intel's microprocessors. The simplified architecture of ARM microprocessors allowed them to be faster and use less energy than their rivals. This way, she laid the path for modern lightweight but robust mobile devices.
In 1999, Wilson started her own company, Element 14, where she developed a new processor called FirePath used in today’s broadband networks.
Influential women in tech: Future
Contribution: A cutting-edge computer vision app called Partpic she designed herself
Jewel Burkes Solomon lived the modern dream of many. She worked for Google, came up with an idea for software, started her own company, and sold it to a giant, such as Amazon. Her cutting-edge startup, Partpick, makes it easier to identify industrial parts and order them instantly using computer vision technology.
She's an inspiration for many girls out there because she's a self-made woman who taught herself how to build a computer-vision app without a background in computer vision.
Jewel was named as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2016, one of Ebony Magazine's Power 100 in 2018, and one of Atlanta's 100 Most Influential People in 2020. Moreover, at her current position at Amazon, she works every day to bring technology closer to people, no matter race, gender, and nationality.
Contribution: making technological knowledge closer to everyone
An engineer by calling and education, Ayah Bdeir founded littleBits, a startup that produces open-source modular electronic components that fit together with magnets. littleBits is an engaging way for kids (and not only kids) to learn electronics, robotics, and programming.
At an early age, Ayah was fascinated by how things held together and loved to dismantle electronic devices to see what's inside. Her parents were extremely supportive of her career choice, despite gender-based stereotypes. She graduated from the American University of Beirut with an engineering degree and interned at MIT Media Lab.
Not only did Ayah's company sell millions of products in more than 150 countries but the company also launched an initiative that aims to bring electronics closer to everyone. It's called the littleBits Inventor Clubs, a place where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities can feel supported and empowered to create. There are currently 300 littleBits Inventor Clubs worldwide. Besides, thanks to Bdier's initiative, more girls are coming into tech as part of Disney's Snap The Gap project that provides 10-year-old girls in California with littleBits kits to ignite and nurture their interest in technology.
From past to present and into the future, these examples of women in the tech industry prove once again that technology is gender-agnostic. Inventions and scientific discoveries are often down to having a passion for technologies and an inquisitive mind. Hopefully, we will see more and more women in tech in the years to come.