Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Women’s Work

A Documentary History of Women in Coding

I do many things.

I do man things.

Please don’t mistake this as bragging, but I have had a varied career and I’ve come to realize that there is a theme to it. I never thought of it as such, but I have done man things. Sometimes the most uncomfortable part of doing so is that the world thinks of them as such. I have been an athlete, been a mechanic, been in the military, created music, painted, performed, made films, been a contractor, trained as a machinist, designed clothing, coached sports, and been a radio personality. I didn’t think of these as man things…they were just the things I wanted to learn.

Zena Hagerty (course instructor) 23rd Service Battalion (Photo by P. McCarthy/Canadian DOD)

I don’t like to think in terms of gender. Yet, I live in a world that compartmentalizes culturally through the means of gender and judgement. I was lucky. My family didn’t distinguish activities by gender. As I was growing up, my parents trained world-class cyclists. The only thing they ever said about the difference between men and women is that women could take more pain, and could therefore cycle faster. Any time anyone suggested anything about gender outside of that, I was told that it was untrue. Because of this, I don’t impose gender limitations upon myself. They also told me that the day you stop learning is the day that you die.

I love to learn, because of this curiosity that they instilled in me. My process of learning involves learning the history of the subject at hand. Before I drove a car, I needed to understand how the engine worked, who made it, and why. Men did. And the engine seemed like a secret that men kept.

I’ve been very comfortable with computers since I was a teen, and being in high school in the late 70’s the only computer classes were ‘business’ classes and the majority of people in the classes were young women, punching cards. As my interest in programming has grown over the last while, every time I have expressed it to a man (who all have known me to be a focused and creative person) has told me, “it’s not for you.” I know that this is because I am a woman, and it felt like the secret of the engine that men were keeping. That secret led to me being the first female tank mechanic (AVGP) in the Canadian military…and, so I began researching the history of computer programming.

The first computer, ENIAC, was programmed by women. (Photo by US Army)

At first, it felt like the engine…secret. But, then I saw a TED talk by Dame Stephanie Shirley about the beginnings of the software industry. She ran a company in which she exclusively hired women as programmers, many of whom worked from home while raising families. I told my partner (the director of our film, Cody Lanktree) and had him watch the TED Talk. He knew a few tidbits more, about Apollo programmer Margaret Hamilton and the women who programmed the ENIAC machine in World War 2. We read about Lady Ada Lovelace, who theorized the analytical computer a hundred years before it was first made and who wrote the first program/algorithm. This was not like the engine at all. Coding was born of woman.

After much discussion and research, we are making a documentary about the heroines of coding, called ‘Women’s Work’. So much of this history has been hidden and not properly told, for varying reasons. A great deal of the earliest computing was top secret and not revealed in detail. The women involved in making those machines work were the details. Some threads are coming forth, people are beginning to know who Ada Lovelace was, Grace Hopper, the ‘Hidden Figures’ of NASA, and our film will show even more. We take very seriously the research aspects behind the film and our process includes consultation with professors and family members, as well as reaching out to contact early programmers who are still with us.

Annie Easley — Rocket Scientist/Programmer at NASA (Photo by NASA)

Our greatest goal is to provide a history of women in programming, in order to inspire the future of women in programming. No young woman should ever look at it as a secret that men are keeping.

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