Making Jean Bartik’s prediction come true

Jean Jennings Bartik died last week. If you are one of those people who are asking “who is Jean Bartik” then you might consider reading the obituary at CNN. Although she was born, raised and educated in Missouri, I found no mention of her in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, even in the “national spotlight” section of the obituaries. Lenin’s niece made the list, but not Bartik. Isn’t it amazing that the passing of an individual who made a significant contribution to the development of computing and to winning WWII didn’t make news?

Jean Bartik was one of the six women who programmed the first general purpose computer, the Eniac. But, according to Bartik, “for many years in the computing industry, the hardware was it, the software was considered an auxiliary thing,” and so neither she nor her five colleagues got much credit. In fact, when they were showing off the Eniac, managers downplayed their role, simply making them out to be models who posed in front of the machines. (you can learn more about them at the Top Secret Rosies website or the Eniac Programmers website).

According to CNN, in February, Bartik said women hadn’t gotten far enough in technology, but she saw a promising future. This comment made me think — why? The first programmer, Ada the Countess of Lovelace, was a woman. These six women played a significant role in early computing as did Grace Murray Hopper. Why do not more women see them as role models and chose IS as a field for their careers? And, what can we do about it to make that future more promising for the next generations of women?

As most people who know me will attest, I am an advocate for getting more girls and women into technology. Why? Because it is a great field and the field needs them! I am advocating a balanced advocacy for women that is best represented by an article I read a few weeks ago: What is a Woman in Tech? When I say “advocating for women,” I am talking about educating women about the range of opportunities associated with an IS degree and giving those women a fair chance at the field. It does not mean preferential treatment or advancement simply because people are women. It means helping to eliminate the IS workplace that is hostile and building a supportive community.

Does that mean I want less opportunities for my male students and colleagues? NO! Putting a woman in a position for which she is not prepared only makes the whole problem worse for everyone!

Last week I also read a study out of University of Washington which shows girls are already picking up on the stereotypes of what is and is not an appropriate career path for them by second grade. WOW! How can anyone know what they can and cannot do by the second grade?! How can we fight the stereotypes if it starts that early?

I, unfortunately, do not have a solution. I believe the proactive efforts of all of us are needed to make the accomplishments of all of the women, from Ada to those on the front line today, known to young women. I believe we need those same proactive efforts to help those young women see the possibilities that are available to them. Finally, I believe we need those same proactive efforts to make the field welcoming of those women. It takes all of us to change the tide of decreasing numbers of women in the field. It takes all of us to make Jean’s hope that the future is promising for young women in computing.

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3 Responses to “Making Jean Bartik’s prediction come true”

  1. Vicki Sauter Says:

    My website has a random quote generator. This morning’s quote was from Jean Bartik. It said, “Look like a girl, Act like a lady. Think like a man, Work like a dog.” Yep, that sounds about right!

    Also, I just learned of another tribute to her: See http://www.computerhistory.org/fellowawards/hall/bios/Jean,Bartik/ from the Computer History Museum.

  2. Esther Surden Says:

    I worked with Jean in the 1970s and I can tell you that she was someone who walked the walk. She was a great mentor to me. Here I was, just out of journalism school, and she taught me everything I needed to know to write knowledgeably about computers. She was a born teacher who was able to transmit her excitement to me. As a woman in an industry dominated by men, she was a strong advocate for women, before it was popular. I hope that her life will inspire more young women to see computer programming and computer careers and maybe even computer entrepreneurship as options.

  3. Vicki Sauter Says:

    MentorNet has a “Celebration of the Life of Jean Bartik” at http://www.mentornet.net/documents/about/news/april2011/news2.aspx. It includes a video of Jean speaking at the Computer History Museum.

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