March is Women’s History Month which honors the contributions that women have made in society across the U.S. For many fields like information security, they wouldn’t have been able to develop, change and grow without the help of women.
During World War II, many young, educated women were recruited out of college to fulfill roles as codebreakers, retrieving information from enemy transmissions and disguising those sent by the U.S. Most went largely unnoticed due to the secrecy of their work, and the overall understanding that they weren’t to be recognized for their contributions. A few of the notable women from this time period included Agnes Meyer Driscoll, Elizebeth Friedman and Genevieve Grotjan. It’s largely due to the efforts of women that codebreaking (and developing the field dedicated to information security) was met with success.
Women also worked as ‘human computers’ during this time period calculating trajectories for weapons (missiles, etc.) and a special team of six women worked with the first computer, known as the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”, or the ENIAC, helping it learn computations. Women gradually occupied roles as programmers that couldn’t easily be replaced as men came back from war. One of the major programmers and software developers for the first computers from her era was Grace Murray Hopper.
After World War II, many women had taken on roles as the ‘homemaker’ or ‘housewife’ in the 1950s and had limited access to jobs in technology. One of the major jobs that young women did have access to, though, aside from work as programmers, included roles in keypunch departments and switchboard operators for commercial telephone lines replacing men in these areas. In the 1950s, switchboards shifted to being electronic and companies were recruiting even more women for positions as operators.
In the 1960s as many as 30%-50% of programmers were women, but toward the 1970s, many women were phased out of their positions in technology due to discrimination. But even in this period, there were still remarkable women doing amazing things in technology and STEM. The 1960s space explorations by NASA were assisted and supported by women’s calculations, as told by the popular story of Hidden Figures, and the first American woman to earn a PhD in computer science, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller in 1965.
Unfortunately for women in tech, “the early 1980s is exactly when female enrollment in computer science programs begins to decline, and it’s really been declining since 1982,” TIME Magazine shares.
Though in decline, women have made great strides since the 1980s in tech, computer science and cybersecurity. Women like video game developer Janese Swanson (‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?’) and Radia Perlman (the ‘Mother of the Internet’) have been pioneers not just for women, but for everyone in these fields. Even today, there are many women trailblazers positively affecting and contributing to cybersecurity.
To name a few trailblazers:
At our 2017 Secure360 conference, we heard from keynote Juliette N. Kayyem, national security/foreign policy columnist from Boston Globe on crisis management. At Student360 2018, we heard from our security C-Suite panelists Deb Dixon, former SVP information/risk (Best Buy) and Sarah Engstrom, CISO at CHS during our “What Keeps Them Up at Night?” session. Last year at our 2018 Secure360 conference, we heard from keynote Alison Levine, American mountain climber, explorer and leadership consultant, on high impact leadership. This year for our 2019 conference, we’re excited to hear from keynote Tarah Wheeler, Senior Director of Data Trust & Threat and Vulnerability Management at Splunk. These women, and many others we don’t have room to name, are making history in tech and security that we continue to celebrate each March and throughout the years.
Happy Women’s History Month from Secure360 and UMSA! We hope to see you at Secure360 Twin Cities this year for more cybersecurity and tech history in action.