WHEN IT COMES TO EMPOWERING WOMEN, Internet pioneer and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain says that technology will “give them the tools to do whatever they want to do, whatever they dream of doing.” It’s strange that some people are still taken by surprise when girls express interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). But a percentage of our population still believes that applied science and technology should be, and have historically been male-centric fields. When in fact, women pioneered many of the ideas and technologies around which entire industries exist today.
One pioneer was Ada Lovelace. The English countess, born in 1815, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer and debugger. Because Lovelace’s mother was convinced her husband had some form of mental illness, she recruited the best math and science tutors she could find in an attempt to prevent its manifestation in her daughter, thinking intelligence could combat madness. As a result, Lovelace grew up in an intellectually enriching environment where she was encouraged to excel. When Lovelace was seventeen, she met Charles Babbage. Although he designed the world’s first analytical engine, a kind of mechanical general-purpose computer, it was Lovelace that extensively wrote about it. Her elaborate notes were published in an English science journal in 1843. In them, she made recommendations on how to fix glitches, and theorized how the engine could do more than simple computing if it could repeat a series of instructions – she was talking about algorithms.
As one of the more prolific young software engineers working today, Cassidy Williams understands algorithms. The twenty-three-year- old only graduated from Iowa State University last year, but made a name for herself in tech long before then. Getting the most out of her education by participating in different clubs, completing several impressive internships, and engaging in numerous activities, somewhere along the way she realized computer science was her true calling. Much like Lovelace and Babbage, Williams is fascinated with technology that can be utilized by everyone. “I love building things from the ground up and being able to make something that anybody could use at any time,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s just a bunch of glorified math, but you really have to have a interesting mind set for it.” Her infatuation with tech paid off. While a student, Williams was invited to the White House to attend its Tech Inclusion Summit and speak about her experiences. “That’s when I discovered what developer evangelism was,” she recalls. “It’s a fairly new role, but the job is basically promoting the product and promoting the company to an inclusive developer community.”
She embraced it with vigor and started giving talks at conferences, hack-a-thons and other tech-related events. Although she found the community to be collaborative, she still encountered backward-thinking people. “Every single woman in tech that I know has some kind of story,” she shares. When a few guys made inappropriate comments in an online group managed by Williams, she called them out on it. “It really backfired on me. I started getting anonymous texts from people – some made fake dating profiles of me online. It was pretty bad,” revealed Williams. Although moments like that are distressing, Williams continues to enjoy learning new things, sharing her love of tech through public speaking, and empowering other women interested in STEM, but she is first and foremost a technologist. “I don’t want to be someone who only talks about women in tech all the time… but never actually pushes the technology itself. I try to strive for balance between both.”
Today, much of what’s possible for women in tech – like Williams – is to the credit of American icon, Grace Hopper. The computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral, born in December 1906, was once described as, “All Navy, but when you reach inside, you find a pirate dying to be released.” She is credited with developing the precursor to COBOL, a computer- programming language widely used today. Like Lovelace, Hopper started showing an interest in tech as a kid, spending her days disassembling and reassembling her family’s only alarm clock. She went on to attend Vassar College, earning a BA in physics and mathematics, after which she earned her MA from Yale in 1930, and her PhD four years later, making her one of the first women to do so. She returned to Vassar to teach math in 1931.
In 1943, however, Hopper obtained a leave of absence and joined the Navy Reserve. She graduated first in her class a year later and was assigned as a lieutenant to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, where she learned to program the Mark I, a general-purpose electro-mechanical computer based on Charles Babbage’s designs and Ada Lovelace’s notes. Hopper remained in the Navy as a reserve officer after the war and became a research fellow at Harvard. Although Lovelace was the first debugger, Hopper coined the term after finding an actual bug in one of the computers. By 1949, she moved into the private sector, and her team created the world’s first computer language compiler only three years later. Soon after, Hopper was recalled to active duty by the Naval Reserve to standardize communication between different computer languages. She was sixty years old at the time. After seventy-nine-year-old Hopper finally (involuntarily) retired in 1986, she continued to work as a consultant and public speaker for Digital Equipment, driven by her passion for technology until her passing in 1992.
Another female tech maven, Deena Varshavskaya, founder and CEO of Wanelo, did the reverse, using technology to fuel her passion. The Siberian native founded her company in 2012, and it’s already one of the biggest digital retailers around. Shortly after moving to the United States with her father when she was sixteen, Varshavskaya enrolled at Cornell University to study psychology, film, and computer science, but dropped out before graduating. She founded two start-ups and worked for different companies before the idea for Wanelo came to her in 2006. “Venture capitalists tend to look for patterns when they’re considering companies to invest in, and… I was a solo female founder with no technical background and no team, which is what I call the Silicon Valley plague,” she writes in an email. After forty investor rejections, Varshavskaya pressed on undeterred. “My parents taught me at a very young age to question everything and set my own rules… I wanted to find my passion and work on something meaningful,” she explains. “It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s about declaring big dreams (preferably things that seems totally impossible), then closing the gap between what you said you’d do and actually doing those things.” Varshavskaya used technology to realize an idea she knew could significantly impact an industry.
This is not entirely dissimilar to how Hedy Lamarr approached inventing. However, she wouldn’t become as successful at making a business out of it. Most people know her as one of the brightest stars of MGM’s Golden Age, but the Austrian-Hungarian beauty was also a tech pioneer. Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in November 1914. She helped co-invent spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology that paved the way for today’s Wi-Fi. Although back then, she intended to create an electronics system that would allow the Allies to effectively coordinate torpedo attacks against enemy forces without their communications being intercepted.
Film producer Max Reinhardt discovered Lamarr when she was still a youngling, expanding her world. As a young woman, she met Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian military arms merchant whom she wed in 1933. She and her husband often mingled with scientists and engineers during her husband’s many business trips. Although she ended up leaving him in 1937, the exposure she got to science and technology during their time together evoked her latent talent for applied sciences. As WWII pressed on, Lamarr’s acting career took her to Hollywood, where she became a naturalized US citizen. When German submarines started sinking passenger liners, she decided to invent something that would “stop it.” On August 11th, 1942, composer George Antheil and Lamarr were granted US Patent 2,292,387. However, their idea wasn’t implemented until the blockade of Cuba in 1962. By then the patent had expired, rendering the invention profitless. Although Lamarr always wanted to be better known for her brains than her beauty and Hollywood career, her work in tech wasn’t honored until 1997. She passed away three years later.
Unlike Hedy Lamarr, Tiffany Shlain has been able to fuse her passion for film and technology with success. Not only is she the founder of the Webby Awards and The Moxie Institute, she is also an accomplished author, speaker, filmmaker, and social change and web advocate. Back in 1987, when Shlain was seventeen, she co-authored a proposal arguing that computers were the wave of the future. “It was the thing that could change the world,” she reveals. She eventually attended University of California, Berkeley, majoring in film and interdisciplinary studies, as well as Harvard Business School. One of her first jobs was designing a website for The Web Magazine. Its owners wanted to become influencers of web technology. One thing led to another and Shlain found herself in charge of launching the Webby Awards in 1996. Shlain is a filmmaker at heart, so after a decade of managing the Webby’s, she founded the Moxie Institute. She believes that film is a “tool with which to move ideas and shape culture,” so she decided to turn to cloud filmmaking as a way of instigating conversations about social change. “Utilizing the scale of so many people online, it was finally at a point where I thought people from all over the world can come collaborate together,” she states proudly. It worked – at least one of her films is currently shown in embassies around the world. Shlain loves being in the company of intellectually strong women, and hopes to raise her own daughters to be outspoken, intelligent, and unafraid to chase their dreams. “The internet is just an extension of us,” she states with conviction. “The good, the bad, everything. It’s about how you use it. It’s the great equalizer.”
All it takes for women to get interested in STEM is a nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment, where they are encouraged to pursue their interests. That’s what Lovelace, Williams, Hopper, Varshavskaya, Lamarr, and Shlain all have in common, as do most men. The point is that it’s not about which gender is currently dominant in the field. Rather, it’s about people supporting eachother’s interests in tech.
Article by Liz Belilovskaya for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue
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