Women in Technology and Adversity

By Emily Hontoria


There is no shortage of women in computing, and many of their contributions and lives have been highlighted in recent years. Some women have gotten a huge amount of attention such as Grace Hopper (leading to the creation of the annual Grace Hopper Celebration in Computing) or the women of ENIAC (a computing machine in the mid 1900s). I find that right now though, the archives and lists that have been compiled are a bunch of names of women without a ton of context of what they had to go through to make their contributions to the field. Additionally, a lot of this research has been focused on the historical contributions. In this archive I want to focus on the living women who have made significant contributions to the field of computing that have faced extraordinary adversity in their lives.

Before we get into the amazing women that have faced opposition in their lives, I want to give some context about how women in computing are everywhere, and that simply bringing women to light in computing is an archival silence all on it's own. One consideration when navigating this archive, it is suggested that you also have open the supplementary video archive and follow along with the prompts when suggested to take a look at a piece of extra material. Additionally, it was intended that these portraits be accessible and meaningful to the reader, such that after viewing this archive you have a better idea of how some of the women in the technology industry look, but more than that, a story to go along with the name and face.

Women in Technology

Recently women in technology have gotten more recognition; from the movie Hidden Figures, the website of which gives context to what the history was behind the film, to books like Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist whose contents (whose story can be found here if you are interested) sheds new light on one of the first computer scientists: Ada Lovelace. It is clear that women in computing are beginning to see their time in the limelight. You've likely heard of some of them, like Grace Hopper or Margaret Hamilton. Some projects have chosen to focus on everyday people in the technology industry instead, bringing in a modern look at who the people that create our world today look. One of these projects is Techies which is an archive of portraits and interviews with "techies" in the Silicon Valley area - including women, people of the LGBT+ community, and people with disabilities. However, this is a very modern shift. Historically there has been a gap in who contributes to technology, and between the recognition that men and women get for their technological advancements. For example, when searching the DPLA for one of the most well known female developers - Ada Lovelace - nothing comes up. Instead, you have to search under Ada Byron to find any relevant information. Similarly, if you look up other women technologists such as Jean Bartik you get scarcely any. The exception of which is Grace Hopper, who has numerous sources (likely because she was a high profile woman in the United States Navy).


Adversity and Strength

In this archive what I mean by someone who has made a significant contribution to the field of computing is someone who has either been recognized by their peers with awards, or has created something that has impacted society as a whole. I realize that limiting it to these parameters means that it is required that they have cracked an archival silence already: they have been recognized as women who made a big enough contribution or change to merit an award.

Women in computing face many challenges: from imposter syndrome and caretaker expectations, to bias based on gender, race, and appearance. Challenges are everywhere for women in computing. Of course, choosing what counts as adversity when there is already a large baseline of challenges is tough. This archive seeks to bring to light some of the women that have faced everything from surviving the Holocaust to being the first woman to help integrate a college after segregation. These are women who faced adversity outside of the current understanding of expectations and challenges for women in technology, and also were able to make significant contributions to the field. I've chosen in this archive to not use language like "in spite of" because challenges are not always a bad thing. These women took their experiences and thrived in their lives. I am also aware that this archive in order to exist forces those people who have faced these challenges to speak up, or have it be documented in some way. There is an inherent archival silence here, where unless that adversity was brought to light at some point, and is accessible in some way, there is no way of knowing about it.

Ruzena Bajcsy

As a Jewish Czechoslovakian, Ruzena Bajcsy and her family were pulled into the Holocaust. Bajcsy lost all her immediate family except her sister in the camps, and was put into foster care. You can learn more about her story here in an interview with Janet Abbate for IEEE in 2002.

She has gone on to receive numerous awards and has made important contributions to the field of robotics (one of which was creating Baxter - pictured adjacent - a robot designed for classrooms to help students learn how to program). She is currently a research professor at UC Berkeley.

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff faced adversity throughout her career from repetitive stress injuries from a faulty keyboard, to the tick-borne Lyme disease. It took doctors a year to recognize the illness, and then another 18 months of treatment to alleviate all the symptoms.

Mankoff is now a professor at the University of Washington focusing on accessibility and research. She heads the group Make4all which is focused on accessibility with improvements to data science and 3D assistive technology, one example of which you can find shown in the supplemental archive. Mankoff has also done a couple of interviews speaking about her accomplishments and experience, and how she has channeled her experience with Lyme disease into her work: one interview of which is here.

Latanya Sweeney

Latanya Sweeney has long been a privacy, data, and security expert with her early work going back to 1997 when she looked into re-identification of patients based on their medical records. For multiple patients she was able to identify them based on their medical records, for example the governor of Massachusetts at the time William Weld. However, because of fear of backlash and no new method of safely concealing the data, she was barred from publishing her findings for over a decade by both a court ruling and repeated rejections for publication.

On her website Sweeney goes into detail about her career and history, as well as many of her projects. Interestingly, her publication Only You, Your Doctor, and Many Others May Know goes into these challenges, and gives an in depth look at how re-identification and privacy are connected. Sweeney's most notable contributions include k-anonymity and helping improve HIPAA.

Lynn Conway

Until recently, Lynn Conway's story was only half known. Only recently have we learned that Lynn Conway started out her career at IBM and created DIS, or dynamic instruction scheduling. For that invention she was elected as a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, an exceptional honor for any engineer.

This half of her story was filled in only after 31 years of Conway working in stealth after transitioning. Lynn Conway spent years hiding her identity as a transgender woman, but that interlude didn't stop her from making other contributions in VLSI as a member of the Palo Alto Research Center team.

Conway has written extensively about her history, story, and has archives of much of her past work available on her website here.

Chieko Asakawa

After becoming blind at age 14 following a swimming accident, Chieko Asakawa found that many previously simple tasks were impossible. Having enlisted the help of her brother's to read textbooks, and later computers and applications, she has used her unique development skills and experience being blind to make the world more accessible.

In this interview with IBM Asakawa talks about her hopes and expectations of AI in the future. The TED talk she mentions in the interview is part of the supplementary video archive which can be found here.

Farida Bedwei

Farida Bedwei was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was just 10 days old. Her handwriting was so bad because of the condition that her parents got her a typewriter when she was very young, which eventually turned into a personal computer when she got older.

Bedwei has received awards like the Winner of Most Influential Women in Business and Government Award Financial Sector of 2018 for her work. In this interview with CNN Bedwei talks about how her greatest achievement is a micro-finance tool - gKudi - for giving tiny loans to small companies and individuals. She also talks about how her disability doesn't hold her back from achieving her goals. She did another video interview with Obaasema which can be found in the supplementary archive.

The Impact

These women deserve recognition not just for their achievements in their fields. Not just for the accessibility, disease management, robotics, or security advancements. They deserve recognition for the fact that they were able to take on adversity, and came out stronger on the other side. Some of these women took their differences and turned them into inspiration. In this archive I hope you've been inspired to face your own adversities and everyday challenges with gusto, and turn them into catapults to do something amazing.

For video material (including interviews with some of these amazing women), check out the video archive.

Thank you to all of the amazing authors of the various pages I linked to, and thank you to the DPLA, Wikipedia, Temmy Balogun, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Anita Borg institute.