In The Field

Emerging tech: amazing grace

So what did I learn about women in technology from today’s workshop? I learned that despite many smart and impressive women in technology – including CIOs, CTOs and research managers – there is still a long way to go.

I also learned more about the early history of computer science: yes, women PhDs dropped sharply from around 38% in 1985 to about 28% today. One explanation offered was that once personal computers were available in the home and schools, and the timing for this applies to China as much as to the USA, then boys began playing computer games and women’s interest declined.

But there were some great women computer scientists in those early years. Grace Hopper, a US naval officer and computer programmer, created the first compiler, and developed the philosophy behind COBOL. Next month there is a meeting celebrating Amazing Grace, as she was sometimes known, and women in computing today. Fran Allen, a computer scientist at IBM, was the first woman to be awarded the Turing Award (the Nobel Prize of computing). Other early female computer pioneers are listed here.

Bob Birgeneau, the chancellor of UC Berkeley, also updated workshop attendees with the latest follow-up data to the 2006 National Academies report: Beyond Bias and Barriers.

In fields with few women, Birgeneau reports, such as physics, electrical engineering and computer science, women now apply for faculty positions in similar numbers to women pursuing PhDs. But the pipeline is much leakier in fields with far greater numbers of women PhDs, such as biology and chemistry. Here there is still a two-fold drop between women achieving PhDs and later career paths. How many Grace Hopper’s or Fran Allen’s are leaking away..?

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