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Software & Web Development

Celebrating Grace Hopper: A Programming Genius

This week, the Phoenix Convention Center is hosting the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a large conference that will support and showcase the contributions of women in computing. In honour of the event, we take a look back at the contributions of Grace Murray Hopper to computer science.

When you imagine a computer programmer what is the first picture that comes to your mind? The sleepy-eyed, geeky-looking nerd squinting at his computer while typing away furiously. Basically the “computer geek”. But did you know that as late as the 1960s many people perceived computer programming as a natural career choice for savvy young women? On the Clayman Institute for Gender Research website it says:

“In the early 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on its ENIAC machine, which was one of the world’s first electronic computers. These six women, known by contemporaries as the “ENIAC girls,” were charged with “setting up” the ENIAC to perform computation tasks. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first computer programmers.”

Recently, many big tech companies revealed how few of their female employees are working in programming and technical jobs. Yet back then, computer programming was described as a great career choice for women. One reason for this, is that at the time, programming was mistakenly perceived as a kind of high-tech manual labour not unlike the tasks performed by telephone operators. As Mark O’Connell notes in the New Yorker:

“Once it became clear that the pioneering work these women were doing was far more intellectual than mechanical, it was quickly decided that, actually, the work would be better suited to the more finely developed minds of men.”

But there is no doubt of the instrumental role women have played in the development of computer science. One remarkable lady that made a name for herself is Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. She apparently once told a reporter, programming was: “Just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Hopper’s early life showcases a girl determined to mark her own future. Hopper was just seven years old when she set about dismantling clocks to find out how they worked. A young girl showing an interest in technology would normally have been frowned upon, but Hopper was lucky that her parents took it as a sign of an inquisitive mind and did not try to deter her. 

At school she did well in maths and in 1934 became the first woman in Yale University's 233-year-history to graduate with a doctorate in maths.  

Hopper’s breakthrough moment came when she figured out the way to make computers "talk." This came about when she worked as part of a team that created COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language), the program that allows a computer to communicate through language as well as numbers. She once said:  "Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.' I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."

Today, thanks to her lead on COBOL, her work remains a part of everyday life. In fact, 80% of the world’s daily business transactions rely on COBOL.

Here at IDG Connect, we always take an interest in the role of women in tech. So, here is a look back at some of the stories we have published recently:

Our report last year, looked at perceptions of women in IT, what the gender balance means for the industry, and the likely impact on innovation. You can see the highlights here.

 

Ayesha Salim is E-content Writer at IDG Connect

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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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