In February, Sofie Francis (Smarter Devon) and I were fortunate to meet online with Stuart Brockenhurst, Chief Executive of Applegate and Chair of the Heart of the SW Innovation Board to hear how Supply Devon has removed gender and race bias from its system.
Supply Devon is a free service which aims to match local suppliers to local buyers. It is powered by Applegate and was established with funding from the government’s Sustainable Innovation Fund to help suppliers in Devon recover from the economic impact of the pandemic. Our conversation led on to a more informal chat about women in technology. I was shocked to hear that the employment rates have gone from one in three women working in tech to one in four. Why has this happened, considering one of the first ever computer programmers was a woman?
For this year’s International Women’s Day (Monday 8 March 2021), I have teamed up with colleagues to share the stories of three remarkable women of tech. I will go first with the story of Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley:
Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley
Dame Stephanie Shirley (born Vera Buchthal) is a Jewish child refugee of the Second World War who dedicated her life to STEM subjects and advancing research into Autism. She co-founded the Oxford Internet Institute and was the first woman President of the British Computer Society.
As a child, she had a love of learning and would frequent her local library and, at school, took a particular interest in mathematics. However, mathematics was not a pursuit for girls in those days and, after lobbying from the school psychologist, Stephanie was allowed to study maths at the nearby boys’ grammar school. On turning 18 in 1951 she regrettably decided against going to university in favour of earning a much needed income. She obtained work at the Post Office Research Station and enrolled for evening classes in applied mathematics. She then later went on to gain a degree and study computer logic.
She became involved in developing ERNIE – the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment used to pick up Premium Bond numbers. This work “edged into territory that would nowadays be known as computing”. However, in the 1950s there was little escape from being rejected, held back, bullied and paid less because she was a woman.
“I had learnt to live with the angry minority of senior scientists who seemed affronted to encounter a girl in the workplace at all and expressed their affront by being as scathing and horrible as possible to their female subordinates”.
With no experience of running a company and just £6 of capital, in 1962 she broke away from employers and founded software company Freelance Programmers which employed women – all working from home. Ironically, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 would make the practice of employing only women in such a way unlawful.
However, overcoming discrimination didn’t end with the birth of her company. She would have to gain her husband’s permission to open a business bank account, she began calling herself Steve Shirley and removed the home address ‘Moss Cottage’ from her company letters so that it would look like it came from a typical chief executive of a typical ‘blue-chip’ company.
From her success, not only did she transfer ownership of her company to her staff, making 70 women millionaires, she set up the Shirley Foundation in 1986 and retired in 1993 at the age of 60 to focus on her philanthropy.
Quotes from the book, Let It Go – Dame Stephanie Shirley
Sam Shaw (Smarter Devon) explores the life of Katherine Johnson:
If you enjoyed the 2016 film Hidden Figures you will already know that Katherine Johnson was critical to the success of NASA’s first crewed spaceflights.
Born in 1918 as Creola Katherine Coleman, her exceptional mathematical abilities helped her navigate the segregated educational opportunities on offer in the USA at that time. She became the only woman selected to integrate the previously segregated West Virginia University graduate school and later said:
“I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
Choosing a career as a research mathematician, Katherine found a job with NASA as a ‘computer who wore skirts’, in a time where computing was “women’s work” and engineering was left to men. Until the movie came out, she and her colleagues were not celebrated – she even had to submit her reports to NASA under a man’s name. Her achievements are well documented in the movie, as is the fact that she completed most of her work as a single parent – helped by her mother, who looked after her children so that she could work.
When she died age 101, NASA’s administrator, described her as “an American hero” and stated that “her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten”. She spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), now known as STEAM to show the value of Art in the sciences.
Sofie Francis (Smarter Devon) chose Ada Lovelace as her inspirational woman:
I first came across Ada Lovelace when she was featured in one of the Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. The only legitimate daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, Ada was taught mathematics from an early age as an attempt by her mother to prevent her daughter from inheriting the perceived madness of her father.
At the age of 18 she was introduced to fellow mathematician Charles Babbage and they became friends and collaborators. Ada Lovelace’s notes on Charles Babbage’s proposed ‘analytical engine’ are widely regarded by many as the first ever computer programme. She also understood the potential of Babbage’s machine extending beyond mere number crunching, anticipating the application of modern computing 100 year before it was realised.
Ada Lovelace’s contribution to computer science has been recognised in many ways. Ada was the name given to the computer language created on behalf of the US Department of Defence, Ada Lovelace day is also celebrated on the second Tuesday of October with the goal to “…raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths,” and to “create new role models for girls and women” in these fields.
DCC’S data pioneers
In addition to Sofie and Sam, we have a number of women leading as ‘data pioneers’ in DCC. To round up our article, we’ve invited two members of staff to show that ‘women in tech’ does not have to be a thing of the past.
Marie Woltman has been working at DCC for ten years
Marie is passionate about Microsoft Power BI and unlocking new key insights within datasets. Using her flair for graphic design she enjoys presenting data as infographics so that facts, figures and trends are engaging and easy to understand. Marie is known as the pioneer of Power BI data visualisation dashboards in the UK Road Safety sector having shared the insights and technical ability they offer at national conferences and further afield among European Road Safety scenes. Outside of work Marie enjoys getting the most out of her Private Pilot’s Licence! She’s had a PPL for over 10 years and an active member of the Robin Flying Club based at Exeter Airport.
Nithya Muthusamy has been with DCC for two and a half years and is a Business Intelligence Services Manager.
Nithya was born and raised in a small village in India and says that her own early struggles helped to propel her forward to take up higher studies and find a job. After University, she joined the tech giant TCS in 2010 as Assistant System Engineer Trainee and moved up the ranks to become IT Analyst. After five years in the role, Nithya left for the UK to take care of Education and Early Help Dashboards and also be actively involved in education data migration to Azure Cloud.
Over the months she’s initiated and successfully implemented Power BI Gateway, Automation of Power BI Dashboards, Dashboard Failure Notifications and automation of source data export for COVID-19 reports.
“before I joined DCC, Power BI reports at DCC were always run manually, required manual intervention to connect to certain sources and had no option to notify the report failures; we have come a long way in terms of Power BI landscape”.