The lack of acknowledgement for the six women who programmed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) and helped pioneer computer programming highlights the kind of biases today’s women must contend with in the male-dominated field of computer science. The story of these women is being related through a new documentary, which comes at a time when the ranks of female computer scientists and programmers are eroding, threatening the global competitiveness of the United States.
“The documentary isn’t just about the history, but how these programmers provided role models to really inspire women to believe that computer careers were within their reach,” says ENIAC Programmers historian Kathy Kleiman, who is financing the multimedia film. The National Science Foundation estimates that women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in science, but less than 25 percent major in computer science. One of the women who worked on ENIAC recalls that after her groundbreaking contribution, she encountered discrimination in her later career as a programmer and consultant for commercial computing interests.
The makers of the documentary hope the story will help counter the image women harbor of computer scientists being nerdy and socially isolated, which can discourage them from pursuing computing careers. Director of education for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Shirley Malcom says getting women interested in computer science involves focusing on not just technology, but how they can impact socially relevant issues such as global warming and monitoring nuclear arsenals.