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The Women who made Digital happen in the UK

In honour of International Women’s Day & the Northern Power Women’s Awards; I want to talk about the women; those innovators, pioneers, and revolutionaries; who made Digital in the UK what it is today.

When we consider the impact women have had within Digital, top of any list must be Ada Lovelace. Ada has long been one of my personal icons. Daughter of Lord Byron and Bareness Wentworth, Ada Lovelace is known not just for being a writer; but also, as the first computer programmer thanks to her work with Charles Babbage Analytical Engine. It was Countess Lovelace who wrote the first algorithm, and she was able to articulate what would become computational processes 100 years before the first analytical machine was developed.

So, let’s now reflect on the world that Ada’s work helped to develop, and the women along the way who have continued on Ada’s legacy.

Used at Bletchley Park from 1944 to help the war effort; Colossus is now viewed as being the likely first programable computer. Although Colossus was designed by men; many women were essential in the working of Colossus (and Colussus II) and later the Bombe machine. Although their role was hidden at the time due to the highly sensitive nature of their work; The Wrens performed a vital role operating the computers used for code-breaking. Jean Valentine helped to operate the Bombe Machine; and women like Dorothea Du Boisson; Eleanor Ireland; Margaret O’Connell and Lorna Cockayne were some of the operators of WRN who worked on Colossus. As well as operating the machines, women were also involved in their construction, including doing the wiring and soldering to create each Colossus computer; Margaret Bullen wired Colossus I when it arrived for assembly at Bletchley Park.

A Colossus Mark 2 codebreaking computer being operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker (right), 1943 – From the National Archives

EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) was one of the world’s first practical stored program computers; and was developed at Cambridge University where it ran from 1947-1958. Margaret Marrs, was a senior computer operator of EDSAC in 1952, working alongside Liz Howe and Joyce Weeler, a researcher who’s work with the device included working out differential equations to learn the internal temperatures of stars.

The LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) was a series of early computer systems, LEO I was was modelled closely off of the EDSAC and is recognised as the first computer used for commercial business applications. Mary Coombs was a programmer for LEO, and has been called the first female commercial computer programmer.

Dina St Johnston founded Vaughan Programming Services in 1959 to provide services for companies seeking to outsource their software development. Her venture marked the beginning of the independent software industry in the UK. St Johnston and her company produced software for companies like the BBC, Unilever, and GEC, flight simulators for the RAF and software that provided real-time information for passengers on.

Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley; who arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee during WWII; founded one of the UK’s first software start-ups in 1962. She launched Freelance Programmers from her dining-room table and was dedicated to employing women software developers working part-time from home. 297 of the first 300 staff were women. At the time, when a woman couldn’t open a bank account without her husband’s permission, this idea was truly revolutionary; and went on to be hugely successful and helped 70 women become millionaires.

Sophie Wilson had a knack for designing new computer systems from a young age. Before going to university, Wilson had designed and built two electronic systems for ICI Fibres Research in Harrogate near her home village. The following year, in 1977 she designed a small system around a MOS Technology 6502 microprocessor, which was used to electronically control feed for cows. Whilst studying at Cambridge she co-designed a new, simpler, less power-hungry microprocessor in the 1980s; which became the first in a family of what are now called ARM processors, used today in almost every smartphone and tablet worldwide. In 1999 Sophie also led the design of another new type of microprocessor, Firepath, now widely used in broadband services equipment.

Sophie Wilson near a photograph of the first ARM processor, and holding another photograph of the ARM Cortex-M0+ to the same scale. http://By Chris Monk – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Martha Lane-Fox – Martha Lane Fox has been recognised as one of the most influential women in digital in the last 25 years. She was the co-founder of at the dawn of the dot-com era, growing the business to be one of the leading e-commerce brands in Europe. After entering the House of Lords on 26th March 2013, she became the youngest female member in history; and since then she has been instrumental in helping to set up the Government Digital Service and GOV.UK.

The UK has a long history of amazing women doing amazing work within Digital; and I’ve tried to call out some of those inspiring women here. However, I do recognise that many of those women I was able to read about for this research were white. We also have got to recognise that we need to do more, especially to recognise the impact of (and encourage more) Black and Asian women and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds into Digital careers. Which is why it’s so important that we keep encouraging women into STEM fields; and keep lifting each other up and celebrating all those women who have achieved fantastic things in order to inspire the inclusion of more women into Digital!