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The five unsung heroes of ground-breaking technology

March 8, 2019

Last year the world experienced Ada Lovelace Day for, what felt like, the very first time.

Ada Lovelace Day was in fact founded in 2009 by activist and journalist, Suw Charman-Anderson, to recognise and celebrate female technology leaders. Ada Lovelace is considered the world’s first computer programmer – or ‘coder’ as we now refer to them. She was a pioneer in computing, putting pen to paper and developing an algorithm resembling that used within computer science today.  Ada’s achievements were undervalued by society until Suw Charman-Anderson reminded us of their significance.

In lieu of International Women’s Day (IWD 2019), we wanted to take some time to celebrate technology’s most pioneering women – those unsung heroes within our sector.

  1. Mary Allen Wilkes – the woman behind the PC

Born in the US in the 1930s, Mary was one of the creators of LINC – the world’s first personal computer (PC) – and the first person to use this technology at home. Initially interested law, Mary was heavily discouraged from pursuing a career as a lawyer because her peers insisted that it was too challenging for women. Instead, she took her teacher’s advice and pursued a career in technology. While at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, following her programming work for IBM, Mary was asked to work on LINC – responsible for writing the operating system code. When the lab was relocated to St. Louis, Mary had LINC moved to her parent’s house in Baltimore so that she could continue to work on it.  This not only established Mary as a core part of the development team, but the first person on the planet to have a home computer. An exciting prospect in the 1960s.

  1. Gladys West – the woman behind GPS technology

Another formidable lady, whose contribution to technology affects us almost daily, is Gladys West. She began her career in technology working for Naval Surface Warfare Center. One of only two black women within the business, Gladys strived to be the best in the hope that it would carve a path for the women that came up behind her. Gladys was responsible for collecting and processing satellite data at the naval base. This work would go on to underpin the development of Global Positioning System (GPS) – a technology no motorist or tourist could live without today.

  1. Behnaz Aria – the women behind Iran’s IT sector

Aria is one of the leaders of female empowerment in Iran. At the start of the new millennium, she opened the first IT training school for women, Kahkeshan Institute of Technology. Not only did Aria champion the inclusion of women within technology, she also led the way for the development in IT   service companies in the country. Thanks to pioneers like Aria, Iran now has a thriving technology scene and 70% of Iran’s STEM students are reportedly women.

  1. Dame Stephanie Shirley – the women behind gender equality in tech

Stephanie founded one of the UK’s first software companies. Frustrated with a male-dominated tech sector, Stephanie used her position as founder to champion women – actively choosing to only employ talented women, many of whom had children to support, until it was illegal to do so. Stephanie was keen to install the understanding that women are equally capable of doing well in their careers, even after childbirth. Despite no longer being a tech entrepreneur, she continues to campaign for equality in technology and speak on the need for females within the sector.

  1. Ursula Burns – the women behind the Xerox transformation

Ursula, an American businesswoman, is amongst some of the world’s most impressive technology leaders. Having started at Xerox as an intern, she rapidly worked her way up the career ladder to CEO – a position that earned Ursula titles including “the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company” and “the 22nd most powerful woman according to Forbes”. Under Ursula’s control, Xerox went from a business once only known for paper copies into a viable and profitable technology business. She is now the current board member of the transportation network company, Uber.

Without a doubt, these inspiring women managed to achieve amazing things through their tenacity and love of technology, despite being overshadowed. Great ideas can come from anywhere and we are fortunate to have been able to enjoy the brilliance of these and many other great women in our digital world. Today, we celebrate them as beacons of what can be accomplished in the face of adversity.

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