Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.


Well, I'm in the middle of a 72-hour Topology take-home final and the run-up to the submission of a semester-long Operating Systems project, so I'll try to keep this one short. But I couldn't miss the opportunity to blog today about the intersection of two of my great interests: computers, and awesome people.

Today is the would-have-been-107th birthday of Grace Murray Hopper, 1906-1992. If you don't know who she was, then I assume you're capable of clicking the above link, and so you've now learned that she left an associate professorship at Vassar to enlist in the Navy Reserve (only after securing an exemption for being underweight at 105 pounds), co-authored papers with Howard Aiken on the Harvard Mark I, and later declined a full professorship at Vassar to remain a research fellow in CS at Harvard.

When Navy regulations forced her retirement at age 60, she was recalled to active duty, and later promoted to Commodore (or Rear Admiral) by an act of Congress. Why did she remain in the Navy until age 80? Because that's where the most interesting computers were, and damn all the rules telling her she couldn't be there. As an alumnus of my high school once said: "Walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop other people!"'

Today, my office in Maxwell-Dworkin sits directly across from the "Grace Hopper conference room", but her legacy also surrounds me in my daily work: compilers, language standards, and the now-obvious concept that code should be "readable". ("But Grace, then anyone will be able to write programs!")

Perhaps it's worth remembering a time when programming was "women's work". (1967 Cosmopolitan article, with quote from one Dr. Grace Hopper) Of course, that's because the first automatic computers were secretaries' tools; the cutting edge of research was still a largely male-dominated field (with the exception of the dominating presence of one Adm. Grace Hopper).

Until the field began to grow in earnest, though, women looking to sidestep the male-dominated establishment in math and science fields could find a place in this new, strange thing that no one really understood yet. So by the time Dr. Hopper retired from the Navy, women were receiving on the order of 37% of the nation's CS degrees. Today, that's dropped to 20%, maybe 25% in some places.

I'm pretty skeptical of claims of some 'good old age' when everything was better, but the truth is pretty ugly: Computer Science, as a field, is less welcoming to women today than it was in the 1980s. At the Boston-area FIRST Lego League competition (for middle-school students) last Saturday, I saw two (intentionally) all-girl teams, and no other teams with more than 25% girls. Except, I suppose, for mine, which was a full one-third female. Not that either of my girls were programmers...

It's a problem, it's always been a problem, and it's not at all obvious that we're currently moving in the right direction. It's not the sort of thing that gets fixed overnight, or even in a single generation, but it definitely isn't going to fix itself, and it's only going to get worse as we ignore it.

Anyway, thank you, Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, for contributing some of your awesome to the field I most enjoy studying. My life is significantly better because you refused to let other people tell you that you couldn't.

edit:The awesome Diane Yang has a micro-post on Grace Hopper on her Quora blog. You should go read it; it probably only takes you a minute or two, but is definitely thought-provoking.