10 November 2008

Women in Technology

The ‘Women in Business Conference 2008’ saw several interesting issues being raised by the delegates to motivate and inspire women who are either in business or even considering starting their own business.

One of interesting observations made by few speakers is that the number of women in technology is very low and this observation contradicts with the overwhelming performance of women candidates in technology oriented academic courses.

Interestingly, the issue of challenges in the field of technology were raised by two women Shamsa Al Seefi, head of Informational Technology, BankMuscat, and Huda Al Habsi, Head of Marketing & Product Development, Oman Telecommunications Company. Both these women have come a long way facing the challenges in a technology oriented professions and stand as trailblazers to the forthcoming Omani women technologists and ICT entrpreneurs.

Historical perspective

Looking back at the history of computing, there have been several feats women were able to achieve in the field of Information Technology / Computing. Let us see some of these pioneering women whose accomplishment stands to motivate modern women who think ‘technology: it’s a man’s world’.

Lady Ada Lovelace

The first programmer in the world of computing comes just after the famed ‘Father of Computing’ – Charles Babbage. She is none other than Lady Ada Lovelace who is also the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. When Lady Ada heard about Babbage’s plans for this new calculating engine, called the Analytical Engine, she was ready to make her predictions for its potentials.

True to real life, she in fact predicted that such a machine might be used to compose complex music, to produce graphics, and would be used for both practical and scientific use. As a mathematician she wrote her plan to suggest to Babbage as to how the engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. This plan, is now celebrated as the first computer program deservingly making a women the first computer programmer. In commemorating her honour, the U.S. Department of Defence befittingly named a software language they developed as ‘Ada’ in 1979.

Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

Often called as ‘Amazing Grace’, Grace Hopper served in the US Navy and rose to the position of Rear Admiral. Her influence on computing was through software development for Generation 1 computers such as the Mark I and the UNIVAC I.

The most fascinating catalogue of hers is her reference note on why the Mark 1 didn’t function properly, where she noticed a dead moth in one of the computer relay circuits. Since then any error in computing is called ‘a bug’ and we owe this madam Hopper. She and her team did introduce a new term when they announced that they had 'debugged the machine’, thus introducing the terminology 'debugging a computer program’ for the first time ever.

She made extensive contribution to one of the most famous computer languages called the ‘COBOL’ normally used for business applications. She even developed a compiler for COBOL language. A compiler is an intermediate program that translates English language instructions into the language of the target computer. So programmers could now use English like commands instead assembly languages to program.

Edith Clarke

Edith Clarke studies mathematics and worked as ‘Computor Assistant’ (which at that point in time meant a skilled mathematician) to AT&T research engineer Dr. George Campbell. In 1918, Edith enrolled in the EE program at MIT, earning the first MSc. degree ever awarded by that department to a woman in 1919.

Later she took a job as a computor for General Electric in new York and in 1921 she filed a patent for her invention of a ‘graphical calculator’ that could be used to solve electric power transmission line problems. In 1947, she worked as a professor of EE at the University of Texas-Austin, and became the first woman to teach engineering there. With so many first feats, Edith Clarke shines in the Computing Hall of Fame.

Francis Allen

Allen was honoured as a Fellow for her contributions to program optimization and compiling for parallel computers. She is a pioneer in the field of optimizing compilers with includes code optimization and parallelization. She has developed several programming languages that have advanced the fields of computer science and optimization compiling. She helped create one of the first automatic debugging systems and, as a member of the Stretch/HARVEST project, developed an advanced code-breaking language known as Alpha.

In 1989, she became the first woman to be named an IBM Fellow. Her Parallel Translation Group (PTRAN) formed in the 80s to study compiling for parallel machines is recognized as one of the top research groups in the world dealing with parallelization issues. Allen was also elected president of the IBM Academy of Technology in 1995. She has been inducted into the Computing History Museum’s Fellowship Award in 2000.

Final Word

Although engineering field, traditionally attract few women, the pendulum is swinging back as women enter the Information Technology field from areas such as medical informatics, e-learning, graphics and programming and are setting a new trend for the future generations.

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