There were six pioneering women behind the programming of the world’s first computer.
You may not have heard their names before, but back in 1946, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Elizabeth Holberton, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum became the first modern computer coders in history.
Originally, the six women had been hired by the military as ‘computers’ as part of the war effort. They spent their time calculating ballistics trajectories by hand, using complex mathematical equations to work out angles of fire based on target distance, weather conditions, and other factors. But in 1945, everything changed with the invention of a new machine.
The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC as it was known, was designed to make this calculation process faster and more efficient — but the only trouble was that very few people knew how to program it. It fell, then, to Bartik, Holberton, Spence, Meltzer, Antonelli and Teitelbaum to master the machine, finding their way around the new tool using their knowledge and skill, rather than manuals and programming languages.
Post-war, this computing boom continued. Despite the fact that programming was largely still seen as clerical work, women continued to dominate the sector. In the intervening years between then and now, however, something changed. Women went from being at the forefront of shaping tech history to often little more than a footnote. These days, it’s estimated that women occupy just 25% of roles across the tech sector — a place where they had once dominated.
With March marking Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day globally, we looked to some of our own team here at Made Tech to reflect on their experiences of the sector, and think about how we can make tech a more inclusive space for women.
We need more women in leadership roles
For women, visibility at the top has always been a problem in every sector. In 2020, diversity report The Pipeline revealed that there were only five female CEOs in the FTSE 100 in the UK, which was a decrease from six the year before. In tech, only 23% of tech director roles are occupied by women.
Chloe, a Software Engineer based in our London team who joined after completing our Academy initiative, believes that this visibility at the top level is a key problem that is a barrier to making tech and other sectors a more inclusive environment for women.
“This industry is definitely a more male-dominated one — but coming into the industry right now, at a time when we’re striving for more gender parity, has meant that I’ve felt truly accepted and that I’ve been treated the same,” she notes.
“My experience at Made Tech has shown me what the experiences of a woman in tech can, and should, be. But I feel that there needs to be a significant change in the way we design leadership in companies. The higher up you go, the more white males we see, and I think that seeing more females in positions of power, like in the boardroom or in executive roles, will help cascade this change down and bring about cultural change.
“We often think that increasing the number of women in the sector comes from hiring more women at a graduate level, but I think this change needs to happen in both directions. I do think things are going in the right direction, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
We need to make tech more accessible for young women
In order to see more women in the boardroom, we need to help young women understand the possibilities of forging a career in tech much earlier on. A PwC report revealed that while around 60% of young men were actively considering a career in tech, only 27% of young women felt the same. Only 3% considered it their first choice.
For Freya, a Delivery Manager based in our South Wales team, it all comes down to education.
“When I was at school, we didn’t even have computer science or IT really,” she laughs. “Our lessons were more focused on helping us learn how to use computers, and we only had a couple of those in our school.”
Freya began her career in tech 20 years ago, after taking on an extra credit course at university on Web Design. After completing a diploma in Computer Science, she eventually took on a software trainer role in a local company, over time taking on a director role.
“When I joined, there were two females in the company,” she recalls. “By the time I left, we had 15 females in tech roles. I have been the only female director in the company to date. When I stepped into that role, I found it quite difficult initially. It had always been a male environment, and I had to change and grow to take the role — but they had to change, too. We had to change the way we communicated with one another, but this paved the way for other women in the company to feel safe doing the same.
“I’ve always felt really accepted in tech, but I think the most important conversation we need to be having is how do we make it more accessible and inclusive towards women,” she adds. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the diversity of roles — the possibilities open to you whether you’re more creative, or whether you’re more of a problem solver. What I love about tech is that you’re giving people tools that make their lives much easier. But when we were talking about careers options at school, tech was never a topic of conversation.”
Freya is a governor for a local school, and helping young women understand what they can become is something she firmly believes in.
“We’ve all got a duty as organisations to make sure the diversity is there, but first we need to understand what that means to different groups. Schools can be a huge factor for changing this conversation for young women, dispelling the misconceptions, removing the barriers to entry, and making sure that we keep talking about it.”
We need to rethink the language we use
“I think that one of the easiest changes we can make to be more inclusive is around the language we use,” reflects Vix, a Client Principal based in our Bristol office. Vix began her career in tech as a software engineer before making the transition to client-facing roles.
“I did a degree in Computer Science, which was heavily male-dominated,” she recounts. “Women made up around 10% of the people on my course — most of whom had dropped out by the time we made it to final year.” Vix has mostly found the tech sector welcoming and has worked alongside some really strong allies, but she has experienced sexism and gender bias in her career.
“I have definitely had to work harder to be respected to the same level as my male peers for doing the same job,” she says. “There was one particular incident where we went out for a team meal and one of the guys made a comment that I was just “the token”. It was the first time that I remember something so overtly sexist being said to me in this environment — but I’d been aware of the bias for some time.”
Vix’s experiences, which ranged from feeling she needed to prove her engineering competency more than her male counterparts, to clients addressing more junior male members of her team before her in meetings, to receiving emails addressed to “gents”, began to wear on her: “It’s the constant low-level things that can eat away at you over time. I had to fight for recognition, or for people to address me in meetings — sometimes even just to get eye contact. I’ve often wondered how much this has fed into my imposter syndrome and my perception of myself and my skills.
“There are lots of times where we have casual conversations at work, where people will use terms like ‘man-days’,” she adds. “On a day-to-day basis those sorts of things can seem inconsequential, but can give the impression that women are afterthoughts.
“We use this language all the time and it divides people as being either part of the club, or outside of it. Many of us might not think that deeply about how our words impact people, because there is no intention to be sexist, but language is powerful, and making an effort to re-evaluate how we use it is important. We need to reframe our language around man-days, stop using ‘hey guys’, and make tech a more inclusive space for everyone.”