Women in Silicon Valley

November 27, 2019


It’s ironic that they are fighting for equality today – after all, their math skills helped launch the digital age.

The Smithsonian Institution, commonly known as “The Smithsonian” was founded in 1846 and currently has 19 museums and research centers (the world’s largest complex of this type) in Washington, DC. I receive a number of publications from this institution and they are all amazing. In June 2019 in the Smithsonian magazine I read a fascinating article titled, “The First Computers Were Human.” Clive Thompson, a journalist and author has nicely summarized the female accomplishments in this field.


Tracy Chou, is a 31-year-old computer whiz, who was described this way by her former boss Ben Silbermann, the co-founder of Pinterest -- which is where Chou helped overhaul the entire code base – making the service speedier and more reliable. Currently, she’s the founder of Block Party: a start-up making tools to help social-media users deal with harassment.


In Silicon Valley the dialogue never changes: (1) women are biologically less wired, (2) men of less ability get promoted, and (3) on-site propositions for sex. Not everyone is antagonistic to women, of course but the treatment is bad enough so that the number of female coders has regressed over time.

FEMALE CODERS: 35% IN 1990 TO 26% IN 2013

Thompson writes, “There’s a deep irony here – because women were in computing from its earliest days. Translation: no digital computers. In the late 19th century, some scientists realized that hiring women could reduce the cost of computation. When Harvard decided to process years of astronomic data it had gathered using its telescope it assembled an all-female team of computers that they paid as little as less than half of what men got. And then the chief observer bragged about it.

At NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) that was started on October 1, 1958 – a female employee gathering air pressure data


But it wasn’t true. The women doing these computation jobs actually had to have pretty advanced math skills plus the work required superhuman endurance: working eight hours a day doing the same equation over and over again can be mind-numbing.

In 1949 in NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) that was founded in 1915 – it turned over all operations to NASA in 1958


To their credit, NASA employed nearly 80 black women as computers. Moving on, in 1962 Katherine Johnson was so revered for her abilities that John Glenn asked her to personally verify the flight path of his first launch into space on the Friendship 7 mission. The astronauts didn’t trust the newfangled digital computers, which were prone to crashing. Glenn wanted human eyes on the problem.

Katherine Johnson in 1962 – she calculated John Glenn’s trajectory – he was the first American to orbit the Earth – circling it three times. He also made two trips to space, 36 years apart


In one sense, the background story of female computers stands in appealing contrast to the difficulties faced by women in coding today. Why is it worse now? Research has found that women in the software industry often leave in mid-career. They start off excited and happy, but after a decade they are ground down.

Tracy Chou is cautiously optimistic because there’s more conversation in Silicon Valley about the need to hire and promote women as readily as men. “Hopefully, some of the public posturing does end up forcing people to do something, “ she says wryly.

All art and photos courtesy of the Smithsonian

Shaun Nelson-Henrick 

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