By NICOL SHOUP HERRERA
March 15, 2018
“Hamilton was an integral part of America’s mission to the moon–an endeavor that cost $24 billion dollars, and took 400,000 people to complete.”
On November 22, 2016, President Obama awarded Margaret Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom– the highest level award that can be given to a civilian. But that’s just another accomplishment Hamilton can add to her repertoire. Not only does Hamilton have a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Earlham College, but she worked at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory as the Director of the Software Engineer Division, and coined the term software engineering. She also led the team that developed the software that got Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon.
It is time to break away from gendering creativity, logic, empathy and ability to work well under pressure as well as gendering Computer Science, STEM, humanities, and the Arts.
In the 1960s the world’s eyes were on outer space. President John F. Kennedy wanted a man on the moon who would safely return home by the end of the decade. Hamilton was an integral part of America’s mission to the moon–an endeavor that cost $24 billion dollars, and took 400,000 people to complete.
Her team worked on the on-board software for the missions at a time when software engineering courses did not exist. Everything was hands on, and everything was new. Her team had no past work in software engineering to rely on. The fact that it was impossible to test their code on the moon made things difficult, but it did not stop Hamilton from employing a rigorous system of testing on the earth, ensuring that there were no software bugs.
Hamilton also faced being a woman in a male-dominated field. Yet, she remained dedicated to the mission and her team. Ultimately, her software was implemented, resulting in a near-perfect landing on the moon. In fact, her software was so strong that it was adapted and used in Skylab, America’s first space station.
Margaret Hamilton is not the only groundbreaking woman in Computer Science. Grace Hopper is a pioneer of computer science, and is often called the “mother of computing.” Her contributions to the field include developing the first English-like programming language, which made computer science much more accessible, and she even developed the first compiler that helped create the first electronic digital computer.
Other female pioneers of computer science include Ada Lovelace, often recognized as the first programmer, and Barbara Liskov, the first woman in the US to obtain a Ph.D. in Computer Science.
In the 1960s, Hamilton was one of few female computer scientists. Computer science continues to be a male-dominated field today. In fact, the numbers are only getting worse; in 1984, 37% of computer science graduates were women, whereas now only 18% are women. There are reasons for the gender gap that arise from our patriarchal society. Reasons that are subtle but have a large influence on the population.
Think of your typical computer scientist. A tech geek. Probably plays video games. A little socially awkward. Most importantly, a guy. There is no doubt that many fields are gendered. Fields that are labelled as creative, community-based, working towards a greater good, and “soft”, are often ascribed to women, while logical, demanding, and “hard” jobs are ascribed to men. This shows the inherent stereotype society has: that women are more creative and caring, and must also have a job that accommodates for taking care of a family. On the other hand, men are seen as more logical, level-headed, and assertive, and can therefore handle more difficult and important jobs. Not only does this mindset serve to perpetuate gender roles, it also creates harmful stereotypes of certain fields.
Computer science has room for creativity and can easily be combined with the arts and activism, while at the same time being logical and based on problem-solving. Gendering a field limits its potential.
Hamilton receiving an award of such high honor for her work in computer science is a step towards closing the gender gap. It is important for women to be recognized for their work in male-dominated fields. There needs to be encouragement for women who pursue computer science in order to send the message that the field welcomes women.
Representation in any field, be it computer science or entertainment, is essential to inspire minority groups to pursue subjects that interest them. If women are only exposed to stereotypical male computer scientists who are represented on our TVs, or only hear praise for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, there will be no place in the field where they can say, “that can be me”.
It is imperative to discuss that it is possible for females to become computer scientists and it is important to highlight what women have done for the field in order to close the gender gap and get more young girls interested in Computer Science.
The gender gap in computer science is wide, but it can be minimized. There are programs in place today to increase diversity in the field, including President Obama’s Computer Science for All initiative, the Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity initiative, Girls Who Code and Google’s Made with Code program.
It is important for the programs in place to be supported, as well as for new programs to emerge, and an important step has been taken: acknowledging the gender gap, and making strides to fix it. However, the roots of the gender gap lay in the gender roles that are fixed in society.
It is time to break away from gendering creativity, logic, empathy and ability to work well under pressure as well as gendering Computer Science, STEM, humanities, and the Arts. A shift in how society ultimately views gender needs to take place in order to truly close the gender gap. We may not be there yet, but women such as Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper prove women can definitely code.