CS4FN: Computer Science For fun – Annual Issue 2 | Gender Report on Technology

CS4FN-1024x232Too important to be left to men

Women have been at the forefront of computer science and electronic engineering from the outset. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t but if it does it’s probably due in great part to the power of stereotypes. At the moment too many girls have been believing the stereotypes, which just leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately many ignore them and are continuing to be as successful as the women of history.

Here we celebrate some of the great women of the past, highlight the work of current top researchers and also profile some students who are set to continue the trend. Women may not always shout about their achievements, but boy do they do them well!

After all as leading computer scientist Karen Spärk-Jones said: “ Computing’s too important to be left to men” .

The woman of the future?

Thomas Edison is a household name, a great man, a great thinker, an extraordinarily prolific inventor with over a 1000 patents to his name. He invented the light bulb, now the iconic image for ‘bright idea’. Think of great inventors, great scientists and most people find it much easier to list men than women. Why is that? Try it. Before you read on, name some great female scientists or engineers?

There are lots but most find them hard to think of. Edison had a reason for that, as he described in an article in Good Housekeeping in 1912 called ‘The Woman of the Future’:

“ Direct thought is not at present an attribute of femininity. In this woman is now centuries, ages, even epochs behind man”

This is of course total garbage. The trouble is men keep saying stupid things like that.

What, for example, was the female scientist Marie Curie doing around the time Edison was writing his ridiculous statement? Well actually it was the year before in 1911 that she had won the second of her Nobel prizes. She is of course one of the few people to have won two Nobel prizes and one of only two to win the prize in two different subjects. Not bad for someone “ epochs behind men” .

Whilst Edison was amassing his wealth and patents, Curie did not patent the radium-isolation process she invented. Who was the smarter? His aim was to be rich and famous. Hers was to allow scientific research to continue without the barriers patents put up. Who was the greater thinker? Perhaps women do things differently.

It is easy for famous people, even famous scientists, to make grand pronouncements that aren’t based on science, which people then take more seriously than they should. The message of science, though, is clear: Do NOT believe things just because of the person who says it. Look for the evidence. If there isn’t enough to be sure, look for more.

So what of women and computer science. Most people would say it is a male- dominated subject. The truth is much more interesting. Women have played pivotal roles from the start. The first programmer was a women: Ada Lovelace. Grace Hopper’s work was central in the move from low-level programming languages to high-level ones. Fran Allen was awarded the 2006 Turing Prize, the most prestigious prize a computer scientist can win, for her work laying the foundation for modern optimising compilers. Great female thinkers are still in the thick of things as they have been throughout. Why shouldn’t they? Computer Science requires great thinkers: innovative people who are creative, social team players, just like most other subjects. Both men and women can have those attributes.

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