Hedy Lamarr and computer science


The picture above is the world’s first electronic computer, Colossus, in 1944. Its operators are women.

This picture is Hedy Lamarr, a film star between the 1930s and the 1950s. In 1941, at the height of her film career, she invented an algorithm for spread-spectrum broadcasting. She couldn’t get it taken up at the time, but she won a scientific award for it in 1997.

Yet almost all famous computer scientists have been men.

Into the 1970s, maybe even the 1980s, computers typically needed “operators” to look after them, as well as the “programmers” telling it what to do.

Before electronic computers were developed, a “computer” was a person employed to do calculations. Most of those, including at the Bletchley Park code-cracking centre where Colossus was built, were women.

Some of those women, such as Joan Clarke, played leading roles at Bletchley Park, but have got little recognition.

The gender imbalance has continued despite victories for feminism in other fields, and possibly has become even worse. Women’s representation in the computing and information technology workforce in the USA fell from a peak of 38% in the mid-1980s to 30% in 1999. And women’s representation in computer science uni courses has fallen even more.

women _in_computers

Part of the reason for this seems to be a vicious circle whereby girls and women perceive computer science as a domain of geeks with no social skills, and then the field attracts men who really do have limited social skills and becomes dominated by a “boy’s toys” culture. Arguably computer science would gain a lot from the contribution of women who saw computing issues with a broader overview.

Many efforts are now being made to encourage women to get into computer science.