Marie Hicks, a history professor at Illinois Institute of Technology, said she often tells her students: “History is less about what gets let into the narrative, what you choose to put in the history books, and more about what you decide to cut out.”
A new class that she debuted this fall called “Women in Computing History” sought to address that exact problem with a tech twist—retelling the history of technology with the contributions of women, people of color and LGBTQ included.
While most know the contributions of male technology pioneers from Alan Turing to Steve Jobs, there’s recently been a movement to highlight the lesser told contributions of technologists who aren’t white men–women like 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace, programmer and computer scientist Grace Hopper, and Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and other black women who computed NASA’s pivotal space missions post-World War II (featured in book and upcoming movie “Hidden Figures”). Hicks, an academic focused on gender and tech history with an upcoming book on gender and the British computing industry, chose to teach it for the first time because she said there’s finally been a groundswell of scholarship around intersectionality in tech history.
This fall was the first time the course was offered at Illinois Tech, and according to Hicks, it’s the only course of its kind nationwide that looks at computing history through a gendered lens (though there are others that focus on gender and contemporary issues).
The class covered contributions of women to computing, such as Grace Hopper and the women programmers behind ENIAC (one of the first advanced computers), and explored the larger societal shifts that switched programming from being female-dominated to male-dominated. Classes also covered how heteronormativity shaped computing, the contributions of Navajo women for Fairchild Semiconductor and how tech manufacturing and consumerism shapes women’s lives across the globe. The point was to help students see tech history as less steered by a “great man” or “great woman,” and more about revealing the history of “many more women whose names we don’t know,” she said.
Beyond literature and class discussions, the class participated in a “Wikistorm” exercise, where they edited Wikipedia pages on the history of tech to account for large-scale contributions of women. For their final project, Hicks asked students to come up with a public-facing project that could help reframe tech history. Students created a podcast about the women who programmed ENIAC, a digital role playing game that takes players through the life of British computing pioneer Stephanie Shirley, and a board game, with an Arduino component, on the history of women in computing aimed at middle school students, among other projects.
Hicks said there were 20 students in the class, about 40 percent men, 50 percent women and 10 percent who were trans or genderqueer. She was surprised at the relatively equal gender breakdown, particularly given Illinois Tech’s gender disparity (70 percent of students are male, 30 percent are female) and that most classes she’s previously taught that focus on women are usually filled with female students. She said she’ll likely run the course again next fall.
Peter Menke, the student who created the podcast on the women of ENIAC, and freshman studying computer science, said he came out of the class understanding how meritocracy doesn’t necessarily work the same for everyone in the tech world (“Often, ‘the best’ in a field will not rise to the top if the structure of the field is inherently against them,” he said), and the importance of intersectionality in history.
“I used to think of ‘history’ and ‘the past’ as the same thing, but it seems that often is not the case,” he said over email. “History is only what people have chosen to document and preserve about their observations of the past.”
Jadelyn Donoho, a senior majoring in Information Technology and Management, said it helped her view her career in tech more holistically. “Although my major is technology related, I learned more about the field of computing itself,” she said. “Specifically, the STEM pipeline…you cannot just stuff women into the STEM pipeline and expect them to come out on the other side. Not without changing the system itself that is keeping them from reaching the other side.”
While most students attend Illinois Tech to study subjects such as computer science, information technology, and engineering, Hicks stressed that humanities courses such as “Women in Computing” can help future creation of tech become more inclusive.
“In order to make successful technology, you have to understand the context into which it is going,” she said. “If you fundamentally misunderstand the historical context of computing, you’re not going to be a good programmer.”