On my recent vacation this past summer to Amman, Jordan, I was amazed by the number of women who have engineering and science degrees. Talking to many of them, since my niece Sally is a civil engineer, was really inspiring. These women are bright lights proving that engineering and science are not fields only for men in the modern Middle East. Impressed with women’s achievements in Jordan, I decided to explore women’s role in science in the U.S.
In the U.S., the contribution of women in science has been significant from the early days. Many historians with interest in investigating women’s achievements in science have discovered the profound impact of women in different fields of science.
- Women in computer science
In 1943, J. Presper Eckert and John V. Mauchly built the world’s first fully electronic programmable computer. The computer was called ENIAC which stands for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1945, Jean Jennings was the first computer programmer who worked with ENIAC. Jean was the sixth out of seven children who grew up in Alanthus Grove, Missouri (population: 104).
Jean joined Northwest Missouri State in Maryville to study journalism. But after few months in journalism, she decided to switch to Math, mainly because of her dreadful adviser. Discovering that she was good at math, Jean finished her math degree in January of 1945. Right after graduation, she came across an interesting announcement that would change the course of her life. The ad, written by the U.S. Army, was recruiting women with math backgrounds to work at the University of Pennsylvania. The ad said: “ Wanted: Women with degrees in Mathematics.” Jean was pleasantly surprised and applied.
Jean was accepted to the program without any difficulty, and within forty hours of receiving her acceptance letter, she arrived to Penn from Missouri, reporting to work. She was twenty years old, fresh out of college ready to do hardcore math calculations. Within a few months and with a lot of recruitment by the U.S. Army, Jean was joined by five other women to work on an unknown machine, stored behind closed doors on the first floor of Penn’s Moore School of Engineering. All of the women programmers were moved within a few weeks to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to learn how to use IBM punch cards. The six smart young women, newly graduated from college, went through six weeks of intensive training in computer programming, something they had never done before. The U.S. Army kept surprising them by returning them to the University of Pennsylvania where they originally started. Upon arrival to their closed labs, they were presented with ENIAC and its blue print. They were instructed to figure it out. This included programming and using the machine.
These women contributed tremendously to the beginning of computer science programming. It is unfortunate that few people know about this until now. The detailed story of these women’s accomplishments in computer programming was documented in “The Innovators” book by Walter Isaacson.
- Women in academia
Years later, the President of Harvard Dr. Lawrence Summers announced on January 14, 2005 that women don’t have an inclination to study science “There is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference means—which can be debated—there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of the male and female population¹,” A firestorm greeted his words resulting in his losing his job later that year. Although several explanations have been issued by many people to clarify Dr. Summers’ real intentions, the controversy raised by his words exists until now. Not surprising to many people, the current president of Harvard is a historian Catharine Drew Gilpin Faust who is the first woman to serve as president.
- Women in finance
In 2008, Iceland with a population of 300,000 was the first country in the world to suffer that year from a strong economic downturn because bankers made loans they could not afford, trying to make a quick profit. The only financial firm which did not join the loan frenzy in Iceland was Audur Capital, established by two women: Halla Tomasdottir and Kristin Petursdottir who refused to invest money in things they didn’t understand, unlike men, to produce a fast profit ². At that time, the financial firm had around $99 million in assets. The two women outperformed the three largest Icelandic banks: Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glinir which not surprisingly failed after the Icelandic government refused to bail them out, unlike in the U.S. In fact, observers indicated that the main reason that the IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan was paid out in full by Iceland was mainly due to women’s leadership in that country.
- Women in leadership
Sheryl Sandberg, the current chief operating officer of Facebook, Marissa Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo, and Meg Whitman, the CEO of HP, are leading the fight in the U.S. of inspiring women (young and old) to study more Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Our society has to be ready for this leadership.
Finally, I am a believer (personal opinion) that if we have more women presidents and politicians around the world, we will have less war and better dialog, less poverty, and flourishing economies.
This blog is usually published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.