STEM’s Secret History
A Women’s Month Reading List
From Karlie Kloss acting as a Wix ambassador to Barbie’s Tynker platform to teach coding to kids, making coding accessible to an underserved female audience is a welcome trend. But acting as if women are new to the world of tech would be a mistake: this Women’s History Month, many female mathematicians and scientists have made a point of surfacing the facts about the women who shaped programming as we know it. If you’d like to read further after seeing the Facebook posts, are fascinated by science, or just love a surprising story, these four books are an ideal starting point to grow your knowledge about how women have expanded our understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths.
Coders by Clive Thompson
Clive Thompson’s soon-to-be-released history of coding was recently excerpted on NYTimes.com as ‘The Secret History of Women in Code’, and quickly received much-deserved attention in the form of shares, retweets, and threads of women sharing their experiences in the tech industry. Apart from serving as a fascinating, well-researched, and thoughtful examination of coding at large, Coders provides a glimpse of a time before gender imbalances crept into the world of tech — allowing us to understand that an industry bias against women is not some kind of implicit, inevitable occurrence, but a detour in tech’s journey that can be addressed by changing course.
‘What sort of person possesses that kind of mentality? Back then, it was assumed to be women. They had already played a foundational role in the prehistory of computing: During World War II, women operated some of the first computational machines used for code-breaking at Bletchley Park in Britain. In the United States, by 1960, according to government statistics, more than one in four programmers were women.’
Coders by Clive Thompson will be published by Penguin Random House on 26 March 2019. You can pre-order it here.
Brotopia by Emily Chang
The fact that Silicon Valley isn’t kind to women is one that’s now pretty widely acknowledged, but how did we get here? After all, many of those in tech careers want to use their skills to change the world for the better and aren’t intentionally aiming to exclude any group, so an exploration of just how this systemic exclusion has happened makes for fascinating — and infuriating — reading.
‘As nerds reached critical mass, the surrounding culture picked up this narrative. Popular mid-1980s movies such as Revenge of the Nerds, WarGames and Weird Science publicized and romanticized the stereotype of the awkward boy genius who uses tech savvy to triumph over traditional alpha males and win the attention of attractive women. People who weren’t engineers and didn’t even know any began to think they understood those men who were able to master computers. But for once, popular culture wasn’t in the driver’s seat. While media definitely reinforced the nerd stereotype, movies and TV did not create it. The tech industry did.
Computers didn’t become a ‘boy thing’ because boys had some innate aptitude that boys lacked. A large study of high schoolers showed that young women have equal competence in the skills needed to use them. The results did, however, show that young women had more fear and less confidence, leading the researchers to conclude that the differences between boys and girls in terms of computer use reflected stereotyping and gender-role socialization.
The power of those stereotypes was pervasive. Over the next decade, parents, teachers and children became convinced that computers were indeed a boy thing. And they tailored their own behavior accordingly. As computers entered homes in the 1980s, parents often put them in their sons’ rooms alongside “boy toys” like trucks and trains.’
Brotopia by Emily Chang (Penguin Random House) can be ordered online here.
Ten Women Who Changed Science, and the World by Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans
From chemistry and physics to biology, astronomy, and medicine, female thinkers have had a significant role to play in how we understand the world around us. The authors of this book have gathered together the stories of ten of those influential women, resulting in a reading experience that’s inspiring, surprising, and at times vindicating.
‘Science doesn’t work in a vacuum and engaging the public is vital. Many of our ten women were aware of the public interest in science and were keen to reach out to others. Rachel Carson’s views sum it up well: “We live in a scientific age, yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priest-like in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the material of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how and the why of everything in our experience.”’
Ten Women Who Changed Science, and the World by Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans (Diversion Books) can be ordered online here.
Forgotten Women: The Scientists by Zing Tsjeng
In her Forgotten Women series, Zing Tsjeng explores the histories of changemakers and trailblazers whose work is as important as it is unknown. In this highly readable volume, the author has collected stories from numerous fields of STEM but it’s the ‘Tech & Inventions’ chapter we turned to first — although the piece we’ve quoted below comes from the ‘Earth & The Universe’ section, demonstrating that tech underlies a whole lot of our world. The pages are packed with surprising facts and trivia but the message is a serious one: women’s contribution to the sciences have been seriously undervalued and it’s about time to change that.
‘The problem, however, was that there was far too much data and far too few people to analyse it. Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering (1846 – 1919) had an unusual solution: he employed a team of women to do it. At the time, bright and talented graduates were emerging from America’s newly founded women’s colleges – such as Vassar College in Upstate New York – and on the hunt for employment prospects that offered a little more excitement than working as a schoolteacher or running a household. Being a computer was as good as it got, even if they were paid far less than their male colleagues at 25 to 30 cents an hour.’
Forgotten Women: The Scientists (Octopus Books) by Zing Tsjeng can be ordered online here.