Friday, January 23, 2009

Female Makers of Things

Let's not forget the women who are makers of things. The actress Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), shown in the picture on the left, helped invent frequency hopping used by wireless networks and cell phones. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), sometimes considered the first programmer, helped Charles Babbage create a design for an analytical engine capable of "developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever." Admiral Grace Hopper invented the compiler and Frances Allen creates compiler optimization algorithms. Dame Wendy Hall helps run the Web Science Research Initiative. The list goes on and on.

Perhaps there are indeed innate differences between men and women, as Larry Summers so infamously claimed when he was President of Harvard University, and how terrific it would be if engineering fields could take advantage of women's special abilities. There's much work to be done and many problems to be solved. Men can't do it alone and it's time to make better use of women's abilities and skills.

From my unscientific study of women, I have deduced that women tend to communicate effectively with colleagues and customers, leaving egos aside and focusing on the problem to be solved. Talking, collaborating, consoling, analyzing relationships to make them better -- we start doing that in grade school. Those skills make us good at engineering and computer science. Not only can we work together well, but we have abilities and skills that help us quickly understand how computers talk to each other in a network and how software modules integrate with each other to accomplish a task.

Our empathy with humans helps us build effective user interfaces. (Wouldn't it be nice if more error messages on computers were written by women? Would the messages tend to say things like, "May we suggest that you type such-and-such and click OK" instead of "Input error, continue or abort?" :-)

Women often have superb analytical skills, which come in handy at the beginning of a project when goals are being set. They don't jump in and start coding. They analyze the problem, the options for solving it, and the process for selecting the best solution. They implement clean, efficient designs and then are persistent debuggers. They don't declare a project complete until the outcomes have been thoroughly tested. In other words, I think women are innately good at engineering and a good fit for my blog topic, the makers of things.


  1. Women have always been makers of things. If we weren't, humans would have been naked and hungry for most of our history. Until the industrial revolution moved making things out of the home and into the factory, women worked alongside men to make things for themselves and for market.

    As for skills - my friends who knit or sew have better spatial intelligence than most humans. Anyone who has assembled and warped a loom or set up a sewing machine cannot be accused of having no mechanical ability. So-called "feminine pursuits" of sewing, knitting, cooking, gardening, budgeting, child-rearing, etc are all best-suited to people who can analyze, communicate with others, make decisions, solve problems. Not saying we should be limited to those realms, nor that women have *only* shown our skills in those realms, just that even in the most stereotypically "feminine" realms, skills that allow someone to be a good "maker of things" are required.

  2. Good points! While I was writing my post I was also thinking about all the women who sew, knit, crochet, and weave. A lot of women, both technical and non-technical, make really cool "soft goods." I like your other points too.

  3. Very nice post! I've just finished reading 'The Founding Mothers'. It's a powerful book about the subliminal influence of women. It makes you think that the core issues of 'womanhood' haven't changed that much.