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.
A FEMALE “ROCK STAR” PROGRAMMER
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.
FOR 10 YEARS: THE SAME NASTY BEHAVIOR
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
THESE JOBS WERE SEEN AS ROTE AND DE-SKILLED
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
IN THE FIFTIES THINGS STARTED TO CHANGE
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
WHERE ARE WE TODAY?
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
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Over time, I’d heard about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos debacle but I really didn’t pay attention until I read about a book that hit the world with great fanfare in May 2018. It was written by John Carreyrou, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal.
I’ve never liked cheapskates. I once worked with a guy who – when we went out to lunch – would make sure he only paid for what he ordered. And when it came to figuring the tax he made sure the other person paid the extra penny. The result was that, instead of just “splitting the bill” there was a lot of bookkeeping and figuring going on. After awhile no one would go out with him.
On November 1, 2019, I decided to visit MoMA on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues to see the final result of this stupendous project that opened for all to see on October 21st. Frankly, I was amazed at the number of people who showed up. After all, it was a Friday afternoon at 4:00 pm. People should be at work – or at school I thought. Or, was it because this was the day after Halloween? Obviously, I’m a bit out of it because MoMA was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve – but not quite. Everyone was very well behaved and incredibly focused and interested in the art.
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