On Saturday 20 July 2019, the world celebrated 50 years since man first stepped foot on the moon. Half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerged from Apollo Lunar Module Eagle, planted their flag and the former uttered those 11 immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And yet man would not have taken that step without one woman: Margaret Hamilton.
Her role in the mission was pivotal. After starting work at MIT in 1959, Hamilton went on to become Director of the Software Engineer Division at MIT, which would see her lead the development of the on-board flight software that would ensure the safe flight, landing and return of NASA’s spacecraft.
In today’s world, where gender and diversity are hot topics on the lips of just about everyone in the professional world, it seems only right to look back on this stunning achievement and assess what it did, if anything at all, to champion women. Female representation in both technology and engineering remains a sticking point for the industries, because legendary achievements like these have gone unnoticed and unchampioned for so long.
Google’s grand gesture
To mark the 50th anniversary of 20 July 1969, Google constructed an homage to pioneer Hamilton on the plains of the Mojave Desert. Made up of more than 100,000 solar panels, the installation reveals the person behind the Apollo 11 mission who has, for much of her life, missed out on the same level of recognition enjoyed by those who landed in the Sea of Tranquillity.
Of course, Hamilton was by no means alone in her participation. The 2016 film Hidden Figures did a fantastic job of uncovering the involvement of Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in NASA’s preparation for the Apollo 11, and future successes. Then there were the six women who coded the ENIAC, the world’s first electronic computer, and Jean E. Sammet, developer of the first widely used programming language FORMAC. By no means is this list extensive – there were countless other women who held their own in the technology and engineering sectors throughout this time period and beyond.
Grand gestures are all well and good, but more often than not they’re a mere flash in the pan. If we’re to successfully start plugging tech’s leaky pipeline of female talent, meaningful institutional change is going to have to take place.
The stats make for sore eyes. Research from PWC shows that just 15 per cent of people working in STEM roles are women; just 22 per cent of respondents can successfully name a female role model in tech; and 61 per cent of women say they don’t pursue a career in technology because there is too little information or advice on what working in tech involves.
Most startling of all, however, is the number of women taking up computer science degrees. In 1984, almost four in every 10 students (37.1 per cent) were women, before falling to 18 per cent in 2008. In PWC’s 2017 findings of university studies in the UK, women represented just two in every 100 computer science students.
The long road ahead
While some argue that this apparent failure to attract women into the tech sector is indicative of a “social engineering experiment” gone south, you don’t have to look too far to see the benefits of having a diverse workforce, no matter the sector. Diverse teams are proven to be more successful, and the longer tech goes without fair representation, the longer the sector will be held back – ground-breaking developments happening at break-neck speed may not show an industry that is being restrained, but if tech companies are to reach and serve a wider audience that is representative of today’s society, their workforces need to reflect that.
By not championing the female tech heroes of yesteryear, we’re suffering the consequences and there’s no easy fix. While a token of appreciation 50 years down the line serves a purpose, it stands for little else if those responsible for them don’t back it up by putting real gusto behind their movements towards equality.