Feminist Computing and The End of Binary Thought

feminist computing


One of the earliest patterns underlying the vast field of computer science and technology is the binary code. It’s a system that represents data by way of two opposing symbols, and it was invented way back in the 17th century by a man who believed that everything could be understood in a pattern of this or that. In a binary, things are on or off; they’re black or white; they’re male or female. But as we continue to co-evolve with our technology, binary thought is losing its place in computing just as it is in society at large — and women are benefiting from this development in a big way.

Thinking in Ones-and-Zeros

Categorizing concepts through binary thinking lies under the belly of the deeply rooted institutions within the field of computer science and technology. And unfortunately, the this-or-that distinction established by the binary code could easily be translated to us-or-them. This has translated to widespread discrimination across the STEM fields, but the gendered tropes underpinning the conversation around computing may be causing even the most forward-thinking minds to miss the forest for the trees. At the very least, binary thought is causing people to overlook computing’s much more nuanced — and nonbinary — foundations.

Widespread gender discrimination is tech’s most shameful characteristic. Only a few women have been able to establish a foothold in tech, and — particularly after a top Google employee penned an open letter supporting gender discrimination in tech — computing has often been mourned as yet another victim of the patriarchy. However, a closer look at the origins of computing reveals that women have always played an integral role in the development of this important field, and they will surely be its leaders in the future.

The Countess of Computing

The history of women in computing spans over two and a half centuries. In fact, the first recognized computer programmer was a woman — the Countess of Lovelace, Ada King.

Ada King was an English mathematician and writer who worked on a proposed mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine in the mid-1800s. King was the first person to notice the machine’s capacity for solving problems through algorithmic computation, rather than merely performing complex calculations. Her notes led to the first published algorithm, and although the engine she worked on was never tested, it is widely regarded as an early model for the modern computer.

A century before the invention of modern computing, Ada King was the first to see that a device previously relegated to number crunching was in fact capable much more. As described in her own writings, she realized the possible “expression and adaptations” of the engine to “act upon other things besides number,” such as “elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity of extent.” It was much more than merely this-or-that, and her perspectives foreshadowed the end of binary thinking before the first code was ever programmed.

Kilo Girls

After Ada King, Women continued to play a dominant role in the development of computer science and technology for the majority of the 20th century. In fact, computing power was once measured in “kilo-girls.” Regardless of their incredible contributions to America’s powerful technologies, however, the work of women in computing has been seen as menial and largely under-recognized.

Today, historians are well aware of women’s contributions to the development of modern computing. During World War I, Elizabeth Webb Wilson was in charge of the computer calculating bomb shell trajectories for the U.S. and its Allies. Around the same time, Mary Clem developed a system of quickly identifying errors in new punch-card calculations and Edith Clarke, the first professional electrical engineer in the United States, patented a graphical calculator for troubleshooting powerline problems. In the 1940s, women were the primary laborers behind ballistics computing during World War II. Women also worked on cryptography — including operation of Bombe machines to crack enemy code as well as early frequency hopping, which is now used widely in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies.

Sadly, many of the women who gave rise to modern computing were left unrecognized and unrewarded for their efforts. Despite her incredible talents and patriotic contributions, Elizabeth Webb Wilson struggled to find work after World War I, and she ended up teaching high school math. Discrimination was even worse for black women in early computing. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and others were required to do more work than their white counterparts while being offered even less recognition or opportunity for promotion.

The pattern of downplaying the importance of women’s undeniable contributions to tech continued with the invention of the first electronic and general-purpose computer: ENIAC. The computer was programmed by six mathematicians — known as the “ENIAC girls” — who worked on software while the male engineers on the team focused on hardware design. Although the ENIAC girls understood both the internal and external processes of the first computer, they were not even invited to the celebratory dinner hosted by the university to reveal ENIAC to the world.

After ENIAC, women continued to carry the development of computer technology into the future — largely without the respect or recognition they so clearly deserved.

Giving Credit Where Credit is (Over) Due

Women have been responsible for computer programming innovations critical to the success of astronomical missions, the creation of personal computer domains, and even user-friendly Mac applications. They contributed to several networks and programs that became primary foundations for the Internet. Indeed, without these brilliant and dedicated women’s, we could never have achieved many of the scientific advancements that make our modern world what it is. But binary thinking has largely relegated these women to the back indexes of computing textbooks and mitigated the meaningfulness of their accomplishments for future generations.

Frances (“Betty”) Holberton wrote the code that made it possible to enter data into a computer by way of a keyboard. Holberton also developed a generator that, “used a program to write a program,” for the first time ever. Gladys West helped calculate the technology that became GPS, which has become critical to our modern logistics and transportation infrastructure. Margaret Hamilton programmed software for computers onboard the Apollo mission, which helped launch America into a leading position in aerospace and technology worldwide. Grace Hopper developed the first compiler for programming language; although she wrote the manual, she was not even credited in it. The fact that these women and their accomplishments are overshadowed in the history of computing is largely due to discriminatory binary thinking that came to a head during the Reagan Era.

Under-representation Becomes Oppression

Women have been underrecognized and underrepresented in computing for centuries. By the mid-1980s, however, the gender disparity that was once limited to credit and recognition extended to participation. The gendered us-and-them dichotomy that dictated was to be recognized in computer science professions mutated into a binary — and extremely biased — concept of who should be work in tech at all. Women went from being under-recognized for their achievements in the tech game to not being able to play at all.

For decades, women have been discouraged from computing careers, and researchers have linked this phenomenon to the direct marketing of household computers to little boys that started in the 1980s. In 1984, the number of female computer science graduates peaked at 37%. Then it began to plummet. Today, only 18% of those graduating with computer science bachelor degrees are women, and well-documented discrimination spans from early childhood STEM education to treatment of women in Silicon Valley. However, the idea that computing is for boys is the exact type of binary thinking that modern society is turning away from, and it’s leaving room for the rise of feminist computing.

The Rise of Feminist Computing

Despite the binaries written into its earliest codes, the field of computing was never a man’s world — nor will it be in the future. Although pay inequity persists, computer science now has one of the thinnest gender-based pay discrepancies. Many women are leading the charge to diversify the field away from binary gender standards, including current efforts dedicated to making more space for diversity in tech. Initiatives include innovative marketing by universities, tailored mentoring, and scholarship opportunities. All of these efforts are designed to highlight the opportunities for meaningful creative and human-focused work, work-life balance, support for parents and nontraditional families, and — above all — the ability to shape our shared technological future in the same non-binary manner that is shaping our world.

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