Women in Computing: a British Perspective

The National Museum of Computing

“Computing is too important to be left to men.”
Karen Spärck Jones 
Ada Lovelace, generally recognised as the world's first computer programmer, was an English mathematician and writer and worked on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.  In 1843 she imagined a machine capable of extraordinary things, limited only by the creativity of its programmer, nearly a century before the first computers were built. 
Margaret Bullen wired the world's first electronic computer when it arrived for assembly at Bletchley Park in 1944. She was unaware of the significance of the machine at the time and says she was following routine but very detailed instructions.
Many women were amongst the first operators of the world's first electronic computer, Colossus, at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England. Margaret O'Connell and Lorna Cockayne were members of WRN C Watch, but because of the top secrecy surrounding Colossus were not allowed to speak of their experiences until the 1970s. They did not continue in computing careers after the war. In February 2014, on the 70th anniversary of Colossus attacking its first Lorenz message, they returned to Bletchley Park, Block H to see a re-enactment of Colossus being used in codebreaking.
Margaret Marrs, senior computer operator of EDSAC in 1952, recalls the early days of computing. EDSAC was the world's first practical stored program computer and was used by researchers in the University of Cambridge, UK.
Joyce Wheeler was a researcher at Cambridge University who was among the earliest to use EDSAC, the first general purpose stored program computer in the UK.
Mary Coombs, a programmer for LEO, the Lyons Electronic Office which was the world's first business computer. Mary has been called the first female commercial computer programmer.
In 1959, Dina St Johnston founded Vaughan Programming Services to provide services for companies seeking to outsource their software development. Her venture marked the beginning of the independent software industry in the UK. Dina’s skills were renowned, and, as a former colleague put it, “the rest of us tested programs to find the faults, she tested them to demonstrate that they worked”.  
Dame Stephanie Shirley recalls founding one of the UK's first software startups, dedicated to employing women software developers working part-time from home. It went on to be hugely successful and helped 70 women become millionaires.
Dame Stephanie Shirley at work in the 1960s.
Dame Stephanie Shirley interviewed in 2013 about her achievements which seem astonishing in the context of the later male-domination of computing.
 In 1969, job advertising often routinely emphasised the role of women in programming.
“Computing is too important to be left to men” joked Karen Spärck Jones who pioneered research in computational linguistics and information retrieval at Cambridge University. In 1972 she published her theory of “inverse document frequency”, a concept that underpins internet searching techniques.  
In the 1980s, Sophie Wilson co-designed a new, simpler, less power-hungry microprocessor.  It became the first in a family of what are now called ARM processors, used today in almost every smartphone and tablet worldwide. In 1999 Sophie led the design of another new type of microprocessor, Firepath, now widely used in broadband services equipment. In this photo she shows an emulation the BBC micro on her smartphone.
In Britain, by 2002, there was growing concern that the number of women working in IT had dropped to an all-time low.
Huge growth in the IT industry in the UK prompted concerns that the proportion of twenty-somethings IT professionals was declining. The number of women in the IT industry peaked in the 1980s and by 2008 women accounted for less than 15% of IT professionals. Initiatives have begun to encourage more young women into the industry.
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