Overlooked Women in Tech Innovation History

I started my career as a systems engineer at a large multi-national financial and healthcare corporation. I identified a vulnerability in how one of the major back office systems was designed and had an idea for how to mitigate it. I went to my new manager at the time, described my idea and sketched it out on the whiteboard in his office. He wasted no time telling me that it was a horrible idea, that none of the business unit heads would ever agree to do something so drastically different that had never before been done, and that they would likely view it just as more work for them. So I explained how it would actually be less work for them, after which he literally yelled at me, “Stop! Your idea is bad! Quit wasting my time!” I considered quitting that day, but didn’t. Two months later at the IT-wide quarterly meeting the IT Director announced a great new innovative idea that my manager had proposed to the business heads, who embraced the idea and were already doing actions to get it implemented. They also announced my manager had been promoted and would be moved to a different department for his fabulous idea, which they described…and turned out to be my idea, right down to the drawings I made on his white board. I learned many valuable lessons from that situation. I have often wondered since then how often similar types of situations have occurred.

Some Overlooked Outstanding Women Technology Innovators

Upon reading the book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution it is clear many women’s contributions to technological innovations have been overlooked or often mis-attributed to others throughout history, in much more profound ways than when my boss stole my idea, and disappointingly it is still going on today.

The book itself was interesting, but unbalanced. And with the exception of the discussion of Ada Lovelace and some mention of Grace Hopper’s contributions, it completely omits in-depth (to the same degree as the men it covers) coverage of the many women  who were involved in all the territory of the “digital revolution.” For example here are just a few omissions:

And the list could go on beyond these brilliantly innovative women for many pages. In fact, here’s a nice list of 54 women who made significant technology contributions. And there are indeed many more to acknowledge and remember.

So the Isaacson book is heavy on testosterone and very light on the estrogen that contributed to the digital revolution and continues to provide important innovations. Some other notable women, such as Grace Hopper and Betty Holberton Snyder, were mentioned, but their contributions were not discussed with the same enthusiastic celebration of their innovations as other non-technical parts of their lives, but seemed in many places to imply (erroneously by many accounts) that their contributions were inspired by men. Most of the men in the book certainly needed to be included, but why omit most of the women who have made contributions, and generally lightly gloss over most of the women that were mentioned? It seemed the author only included the few women that have had acknowledgement of their accomplishments, and no digging was done to point out the many others whose contributions to technology innovation significantly impacted the technology we enjoy today. It overlooked a large majority of women in tech innovation.

Optimism for Change Going Forward

Did you know that in the late 1890’s 58 percent of science, technology, engineering and math students were female? Women have long demonstrated solid aptitude for STEM areas of work (after all, Ada Lovelace was the founder of scientific computing in the early 1800’s), but culture, not natural ability, guided them away from making more contributions than could have been possible, supported by the many clear gender discrimination actions in the early 1900s.

March is Women’s History Month. This is a great time to reflect upon the many, mostly unacknowledged, innovations that women have made to technology. I hope the information provided so far is inspiring you to do so.

I’m also hopeful that we are finally seeing the tide turn for women entering the STEM areas. In recent years there have been more significant pushes to open more doors to women that have been previously all but closed based on the gender bias that reared its ugly head in the 1900’s and continues to discourage and move women into other roles than those many want to pursue in STEM. Let’s hope that discrimination beast gets slain sooner rather than later.



This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. To learn more about tech news and analysis visit Tech Page One (http://techpageone.dell.com/). Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies. 


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