The Mothers of Tech: Looking to the past to build our future

Mar 22, 2017

By: Shaquille Fontenot

Even though the technology industry is jokingly called ‘the old boys’ club,” women have always been significant contributors to it. Women have created many of the positions available to us now, though they often ran into concrete ceilings along the way. These women are the pioneers of passion—the dreamers who had no other choice than to make their dreams a reality. These pioneering women of technology also had the audacity to uproot systems, organize them, and better them. Whether humanizing operating systems, offering their voices up to technology like Apple’s “Siri,” or revolutionizing the programming process as a whole, women have proved themselves to be the mothers of technology.

This Women’s History Month, Women in the Channel pays tribute to our fore-mothers by recognizing just a few of the many women who have paved the way and created opportunities for women in science and technology.

Esther Gerston and Gloria Gordon –Computing Geniuses – They were two of the 100 or so programmers who joined the first general-purpose electronic computer (ENIAC) project in the 1940s. Their work required extreme stamina, calmness, and innovation, as they were calculating artillery-firing tables for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. Records state, “the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was 150 feet wide, filling a 30×50 foot room, with about 18,000 vacuum tubes, 3,000 switches and 20 banks of flashing lights.” (Washington Post, 2009).

Dorothy “Programming Beast” Vaughan She was a mathematician and human computer who managed the West Computing Group for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later called NASA) for nearly a decade. Not only was she NACA’s first black supervisor at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, but was one of very few women supervisors. She collaborated with other NACA computers and taught her group several programming languages that would allow them to support computing efforts. (NASA, 2016).

Hedy “Encryption Angel” Lamarr – She was a television star in the 1920s, but she also developed the technology to help the Navy remotely control torpedoes. She had a hand in randomized channel switching, which made it difficult for outsiders to decode communications. Simply, she helped invent an early form of encryption technology. This knowledge is still used at most of our positions today. (National Inventors Hall of Fame, 2014).

Radia “Internet Mavenin” Perlman – She is a network engineer that made Ethernet technology a household name. She invented the spanning-tree protocol which has an impact on how networks self-organize and move data. Her algorithms transformed Ethernet from the original limited-scalability into a protocol that can handle multiple clouds. Thanks for the Internet, Radia! (The Atlantic, 2014)

Dr. Erna “Phone Queen” Hoover – We wouldn’t have the Hosted PBX that we know without Erna! While working at Bell Laboratories (later AT&T Bell Labs), Erna invented a telephony switching program that kept phones functioning under stressful loads. The executive program she created allowed machines to operate efficiently. She also received one of the first patents for computer software. Bonus point: She worked on her idea in the hospital, after giving birth to her second daughter (Gale: Science in Context, 2009). When asked about her experience with the glass ceiling as a woman in technology, Dr. Edna Hoover commented, “When I was hired, the glass ceiling was somewhere between the basement and the sub-basement.” Nevertheless, she persisted.

Our days are often stressful because among our other responsibilities, we tend to reflect on the many ideas we want to bring to our organizations. When we struggle to find work-life balance, or the deep sigh at the thought of jumping on another conference call- just remember all the incredible women who came before us. They fought to make that ceiling a little lower, to make that call a little easier, and to make that network run a little faster. Luckily, Women in Channel provides a great deal of support for those of us who have a tendency to believe we’re in this alone. The strong and passionate members of our organization can provide a plethora of support and wisdom for those seeking it.

Thank a woman in tech today for having your back!