By Nadia Beidas
Earlier this month, a TikTok video of a young female student, Claire McDonnell, in STEM [science, engineering, technology, and mathematics], interrupted by her male classmates during a video call went viral. Following the video, McDonnell received a lot of support from fellow women in STEM commiserating on their own experience as far as being interrupted, talked over or not having their ideas taken seriously.
About 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees are received by female students, however; only 18 percent of these degrees are computer science and information sciences, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology [NCWIT], a non-profit community that strives to bring more women into the computing field.
There is also a gender gap in the work force. About 26 percent of computing occupations are held by women, according to a 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the women in computing, about 66 percent are white.
A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found about 50 percent of women reported they faced gender discrimination within the STEM work force.
Women have been instrumental in pioneering the field of computer science as well as achieving breakthroughs. However, a wide gender gap remains.
But an examination of history highlights the importance of women in the field. The examples to follow only represent a small part of the contributions women have made.
In the mid-1800s, Ada Lovelace wrote an algorithm to be used for a computing machine. She would be dubbed “the first computer programmer.” Lovelace’s notes reflect on the ways a device can handle not only numbers, but letters and symbols, through codes.
The looping process utilized by current computer programs was a method Lovelace came up with. An instruction series could be repeated. For more about Lovelace, please visit https://www.biography.com/scholar/ada-lovelace and https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/women-in-stem.
In 1922, Edith Clarke was the first female electrical engineer who was professionally employed. She struggled to find employment in her field of study in contrast to the typical jobs women worked in at the time. Clarke undertook difficult mathematical calculations prior to the invention of modern calculators and computers.
For more on Clarke and other inspiring women in STEM, please visit https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/women-in-stem.
Computer programming was a new field at the time of World War II, and during this time, women were hired to be human computers.
In 1939, Barbara Canright, the first human computer, undertook a variety of tasks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. These tasks included calculations of the number of rockets necessary for a plane to become airborne, and the type of rocket propellants required in order for a spacecraft to propel. The calculations were completed by hand and took over a week to complete.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, her work was important and necessary to the army. One of her responsibilities was to compare the engines performance under a variety of conditions. As the work increased, more female human computers were brought in to work.
In 1958, Barbara Paulson played an important part of the United States’ first successfully launched satellite via the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Paulson plotted received data given by the network tracking station and the satellite. Paulson and other human computers brought the U.S. into the Space Race.
For more on the human computers, visit https://www.history.com/news/human-computers-women-at-nasa.
At NASA, Dorothy Vaughan was an expert at the FORTRAN coding language. Vaughan also was a part of the SCOUT Launch Vehicle Program that put satellites in space. The story of Vaughan and other black female mathematicians at NASA is played out in the movie Hidden Figures.
From 1949 to 1958, Vaughan also headed the segregated National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA] West Area Computing Unit. In 1958, NACA transitioned to NASA and segregated facilities were removed. Vaughan and others from the former unit subsequently joined the Analysis and Computation Division [ACD], which integrated gender and race for electronic computing.
For more on Dorothy Vaughan, please visit https://www.nasa.gov/content/dorothy-vaughan-biography.
Grace Hopper was a part of the navy in World War II. During this time, she programmed the Mark I computer. Following the war, she and a team came up with the first compiler for computer language. This compiler led to the COBOL language.
For more on Grace Hopper, please visit https://www.biography.com/scientist/grace-hopper and https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/women-in-stem.
Again, these are only a few examples. Yet, we must ask ourselves why the disparity still exists.
From my own experience, I grew up in a generation where we were taught from an early age that there were some fields for boys and some fields for girls. When I was in elementary school, I gravitated more toward the subjects of science and math then I did toward English and history.
But when I went through junior high and high school and got into the honors program, my abilities were often put down and even mocked due to old school ideas. As a result, I lost faith in my ability in science and math, and I stopped trying for a long time.
Fortunately, I further developed my love of writing, and this love led me to pursue a creative field once I began my initial undergraduate studies. However, when I made the decision to pursue another degree in computer science, I noticed a shift in attitudes.
In my experience, the instructors in ECaMS [department of engineering, computing, and mathematical sciences], are all encouraging of female students and have emphasized the importance of women coming into the field.
There were times I was the only female student in the class, or there were one or two others, and I was asked a few times if that made me uncomfortable. As an older returning student who has had a variety of life experience, I was not uncomfortable. But if I was a traditional-age college student I might have been uncomfortable or intimidated from speaking.
For female students in the program, do not be afraid to ask questions, suggest ideas and be creative. If someone tries to talk over you or dismisses or insults your ideas and abilities, then stand firm while being respectful. Someone who puts you down is either afraid of what you can do, or they are insecure themselves.
And for male students, please hear out your female colleagues and be open to suggestions. Examine whether your opinion would be different if her words came from a male colleague.
Change and progress start with all of us. We have the power to bridge the gender gap, starting in our studies and continuing to the work force.