In “The Women Tech Forgot,” Nick Bilton writes “It’s no secret that people are often erased from this history of big-tech companies.”[i] Hilariously, two sentences later he writes “what may come as a surprise is the number of women who played a pivotal role but who are now forgotten.” It may be a surprise to him, or to some people, but not to women in tech, and in fact not to most women in any industry. Whether it is passing over what a woman says in a meeting, then praising the same remark later from a man, or not acknowledging a woman’s contributions, the small incidents that eventually add up to the large historical erasures happen all the time.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”[ii] Interestingly, in the same chapter of that famous essay, she also wrote about how to bring women out from where they have been hidden in history: “What one wants . . . is a mass of information.”[iii] It would be hard to reconstruct this information for the Elizabethan woman author Woolf imagines, when so much about women was not recorded, but it will not be as hard for us, and we have a responsibility not to allow it to be as hard for the next generation.
When it comes to our contributions to technology, and to anything else, for that matter, we have both the mass of information that Woolf imagined and the tools to preserve and disseminate it. What we must also have is the will and energy and time and resources to speak up. That means training ourselves to speak up and be heard; learning how to make sure our contributions are acknowledged, remembered, and rewarded at work; training others to do the same; and then acting as our own historians and encouraging other to do so. The tools we use to do all that have changed (greatly to our advantage), but the depressing similarity between the erasures Bilton and Woolf recount should tell us that the need to do that has not changed, or at least not enough.
You can help meet this need by learning to speak up, learning what your women colleagues are doing, reading and talking about your and their contributions, and contributing to the historical record of blogs, articles, comments, and patent applications. Women make history every day; now we have to write the histories, too.
Here are some great examples of that history: Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled us, from Missiles to the Moon To Mars is the story of women in the 1940s and 50s at the then-new Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Here’s a superb gift for older girls and women: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World, which is just what it sounds like, filled with women role models. The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science shows us that maybe science wouldn’t be such a boys’ club if we knew and had known the actual history of women scientists. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe tells how a “yardstick” suitable for measuring the cosmos was discovered by Henrietta Swan Leavitt at the beginning of the twentiety century, And in Blazing the Trail: Essays be Leading Women in Science women scientists tell their own stories.
For kids: Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science is a novel in verse about three girls in three different time periods who grew up to become groundbreaking scientists (age 10 and up). Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the STEM fields from the ancient to the modern world (age 10 and up). Here are the rest of my recommendations for kids of all ages and the adults who love them.
Memoirs: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, on plant life, lab life, and human lives. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club is told by one of the first two women to get a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale – who then abandoned her dream of becoming a scientist, and why, and what to fix. A Woman of Science: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, discovery, and the Sex Life of Mushrooms tells the story of a pioneer in her field (I did not make up that title).
You say you want to have fun and read about STEM women and history? Heavens. Start here: Critical Mass, about physics, memories of World War II, and women scientists, and here, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, about a precocious chemist and detective in 1950s England.
And if you find that, when you do the work of talking and writing about women’s contributions, you get ignored, or spoken over, read the wonderful, funny, horrifying, short, necessary Men Explain Things to Me. For what to say in response, read my “Now What do I Say?” Practical Workplace Advice for Younger Women.
[i] Nick Bilton, “The Women Tech Forgot.” Disruptions, New York Times, October 2, 2014, 1-2, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/02/fashion/the-innovators-by-walter-isaacson-how-women-shaped-technology.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3As%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A10%22%7D&_r=0
[ii] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (San Diego: Harcourt, 1929), 49.
[iii] Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 45.