Where Did All the Women Go?

DQI Bureau
New Update

Knowledge is power. So, to fight the gender apartheid in science and

technology, we have to start with the textbooks in our schools and colleges.

Many of these books are either poorly researched or badly written, reflecting



For instance, do you know that the first 'computer' was a woman? No, I'm

not talking about Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace. The first programmers were

called 'Computers.' And, contrary to the boys only image of programming,

they were all women.

'Computers' was the name given by the US Army to a group of over 80 women

working at the University of Pennsylvania, during the Second World War,

calculating ballistic trajectories, which were complex differential equations,

by hand.

Sixty years ago, the US army agreed to fund an experimental project for the

all electronics digital computer-the ENIAC project. The six 'computers'

who were selected were Kathleen (Kay) Antonelli, Jean J Bartik, Betty S

Holberton, Marlyn W Meltzer, Frances B Spence, and Ruth L Teitelbaum. Thus were

the programmers of the first computer as we know it. Each of them went on to

create commercial computers and programming languages.


All of them, except for Betty Holberton, are alive today. How many of us even

know that these women exist? Or that the word "computer" used to be

associated only with women?

Grace Murray Hopper, a US naval officer, designed the first commercial

computer-the UNIVAC, and also worked with Betty Holberton to design COBOL.

Forget school-level education, even college-level textbooks don't talk about

it. This is the sad state of affairs in the 'Information Age', which these

women helped begin!

Why such a sad state of affairs? Some research brings me to four main



We Are What We Read

Textbook content is the prime factor driving perception, and affecting the

other factors. We are what we read.

For generations our schoolbooks have failed to mention, the pioneering women

in science, technology, business, and computers.

Children, both boys and girls, grow up to believe that women have never

contributed much to the advancement of science, technology, or engineering.


SIX COMPUTERS: Selected by the US Army, in 1945, for the

ENIAC project-Kathleen (Kay) Antonelli, Jean J Bartik, Betty S
Holberton, Marlyn W Meltzer, Frances B Spence, and Ruth L Teitelbaum

Since boys read the same books, they are taught the same thing. This leads to

the continuation of what 'women' and 'men' roles are in the society.

This also has a domino effect for these children who later, as educated parents,

continue this behavior. This is a sad commentary on a developing and ancient

society like ours.

Homemaker Stereotype

Schooling affects all aspects of our lives. Today's parents in urban areas

may 'indulge' their daughters. However, as a generation stripped of women

role models, thanks to schooling, many still set limits for their children just

as illiterate rural classes do.


According to a 2004 UNESCO study, girls consistently match or surpass boys'

achievements in science and mathematics in schools across the world. Despite

this, in India, even though roughly 45% of students in engineering colleges are

women and many graduate with honors, less than 10% go on to pursue a full-time

career as an engineer.

A weird phenomenon in the educated, Indian middle-class society is that

degrees in engineering and medicine are used as status symbols for girls to land

a husband, after which the girls are either asked to give up their careers as

'we don't need the money' or forced to give it up for the 'well being of

the children'. Otherwise, the woman is socially labeled 'a bad homemaker'

because in dual-income families, women still do most of the


A lady who headed the India division of a multinational firm had to quit as

her husband had been promoted to project manager and needed to relocate to Pune,

where her firm didn't have a branch. She now works on freelance projects and

takes care of her two teenage daughters.


Children, especially boys, are still raised to believe that men are the prime

wage earners, while the women's is just 'additional income'; their main

role being nurturers. As adults, they continue this myth and instill it in their

children with the help of textbooks, which say no different.

The Classroom

Our learning methodology centers around teachers as the main source of

knowledge. Their classroom behavior affects children's perception on gender


In schools, there is often a hidden curriculum about power

that interrupts both learning and teaching. They affect the way students learn,

teachers teach and interact with students, and students interact with each other

and with teachers.


For instance: the way classroom participation of girls drop

as they grow older. In the primary school stage, girls are more dominant than

boys and are eager to participate in class discussions. Beginning with junior

school, this pattern is reversed.


An unconscious bias in picking volunteers enters classrooms in junior

school, which coincides with the time young girls attain puberty. Suddenly, they

are not girls anymore but women, and the teacher's behavior becomes more

distant as they are expected to be more 'sensitive'.

This creates a paradigm shift in their classroom behavior. On

being continuously ignored, girl students soon stop actively participating in


Vicious Circle

The combined effect of the above three reasons leads to the social

perception of disassociation of women and technology and the perpetuation of

myths of women's 'roles' and 'place' in society. This becomes a

vicious circle, for it is from this society that authors who write school

textbooks and the people who comprise the board that develops the curriculum,

come from. This results in the continuation of gender insensitive education for

the next generation and has been so for five decades.

Gender Equality

One of the goals agreed at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000 was,

"To eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education,

preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education by 2015." To

achieve this, at least by 2020, we need to do the following.

Rewrite textbooks: The curricula and textbooks need to

be revised where the contribution of women to science and technology, especially

the pioneers in computer science and IT, is ignored. There is a need to include

achievements and heroic instances of the female in equity to the men.

A gender tech committee: It needs to be advertized

that the human brain is not just any muscle tissue and that learning causes

brain cells to form new connections with each other; the more synaptic

transmissions, the better the thinking process irrespective of gender. As a

result, books, before they are issued to students, should go through a gender

committee comprising of academics, feminists, historians, etc, to make sure that

the textbooks have a gender balance and include the important contributions of

women to science and engineering.

The media has a large role to play, as advocates of a proper

technical education that starts with gender sensitive schooling. They could act

as vanguards of making sure public policy is inclusive to all, especially in

education. Starting with the textbooks is important, for while we may seek to

effect changes in the workplace, it doesn't make sense if our children (our

future) are continued to be taught what we and our parents were: women never

made any significant contributions in technology or its development-which is

plain lies.

If we don't act now, it would be impossible to realize the

dream of a developed India, for no civil society that ignores or refuses to

acknowledge the contribution of half the population, can call itself developed.

Deepa Kandaswamy

The author is the founder-moderator of the IndianWISE e-group