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It was a sad statement that a discussion of women who've had an impact in technology, specifically computer science, often results in a discussion of just one woman, Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992)....

February 10, 2006

4 Min Read
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It was a sad statement that a discussion of women who've had an impact in technology, specifically computer science, often results in a discussion of just one woman, Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992). Is it really the case that women have had so little an impact on IT and computer science since Hopper gave us COBOL and started the revolution that would result in more languages than there are letters in the alphabet?

Was Hopper really the last woman to have an impact, or is it just that we are, for some reason, far less recognized by the wider technology community?

I asked Don, who do you think of when I say PERL? He shook his head, not knowing the name, but knowing it was "the guy who created PERL." But when I think of PERL I think of Jacinta Richardson. Her name is - and was and should be - widely known for her expertise on the subject, and most people know if you get stumped using PERL, seek out Jacinta - she'll set you straight. Books on PERL often carry a recommendation from her, which to many in the wider Web-development community carries a great deal of weight. She's a Saint on Perlmonger, and writes a mean ASCII art sig to boot.

What about Carla Schroeder? Her Linux Cookbook from O'Reilly is one of the best selling books on Linux in the last year, and she's working on more. She knows Linux like very few know Linux, yet very few of us know her name and can associate it with the operating system.

Need more? Here's a fairly good list, not all-inclusive of course, but none-the-less a good list of women contributing heavily to Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (my true love within the wider field of Computer Science).I imagine the counter argument is that these women haven't contributed at the same level as Grace Hopper. That may be true, but I would contend that they - and the many Linux kernel hacking/code warriors/architects that just happen to also be women - have proven that Hopper wasn't a fluke, which is the way too many men, young and old, in this field tend to react to technically minded women.

Meeting a colleague for the first time I was asked, "So what's your master's degree? An MBA?" No sir, thank you, it's in Computer Science, whatever gave you the idea that it was in business? I suck at businessy stuff, like most hard-core computer scientists. But there's an assumption, a stereotypical and incorrect one, out there that women just aren't any good at this technical stuff. I've been told it behooves me, as a woman, to try and help correct this erroneous misconception where and when I can because I'm in a position to do so very publicly, especially as the number of women in computer science is not rising, but declining.

With satire products like "Barbie Linux" and other demeaning creations, it's no wonder men think women and technology don't mix. Or perhaps it's just that IT and computer science is one of the last bastions of male dominance that exist today and men are reluctant to open the gates and let us in, so we have to scale the walls or challenge the guards, which means we generally have to be better than the status quo just to get in the door.

Whatever the reason, it's a disconcerting trend that needs to be reversed, and one of the first things to do is point out to young women - and men - that Colonel Grace Hopper was not the only woman to stand out in computer science or make a contribution. That the field has widened to the point where it is difficult for anyone to stand out let alone a woman, so we must take it upon ourselves to point out that we aren't freaks of nature.

So keep writing on Linux, Carla, and keep preaching PERL, Jacinta. One day a young man entering college won't feel put off by the fact that he's a third-generation computer scientist whose previous two generations were women. It'll just be the way it is.And that's the way it should be.

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