From the world’s first computer programmer to the creation of the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), women have played a crucial role in shaping the world of technology.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I wanted to spotlight women that have made and are making significant contributions in two male-dominated industries: software engineering and cybersecurity.
Women who broke new ground
Ada Lovelace – She was an English mathematician and writer. At only 19 years old, and with no formal training, she created what is widely recognised as the first computer programme. It was designed to run other programmes automatically and intended to be carried out by Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine.
Daughter of the romantic poet George Gordon Byron, aka Lord Byron, she took inspiration from many different fields to write the first algorithm including languages (French and Italian), music and needlecraft, in addition to mathematical logic.
Since 2009, she has been recognised annually on October 15th to highlight the often-overlooked contributions of women to math and science.
Dorothy Denning – She is a US-American information security researcher and is recognised as one of the world's leading experts in that field. She was formally introduced to computers through a summer job at IBM when she was 16 but it wasn’t until after she got her Ph.D. that she took on cybersecurity as her full-time career.
She notably worked for the Naval Security Group and established a group focused on computer security. She then went on to found Georgetown University’s Department of Computer Science and spearheaded research for several organisations. She is known for lattice-based access control (LBAC), intrusion detection systems (IDS), and other cyber security innovations.
Grace Hopper – She was a computer pioneer and naval officer and is best known for her trailblazing contributions to the development of computer languages. She received a master’s degree in 1930 and a Ph.D. four years later in mathematics from Yale. She then joined the U.S. Naval Reserve where she contributed to the creation of the Harvard Mark I, an early prototype of the electronic computer.
During this time, she coined the term “bug” to describe a computer malfunction when her team found a moth inside one of the devices.
Later in her career she invented the first computer compiler, a programme that translates written instructions into codes that computers read directly. This work led her to co-develop the programming language COBOL, which eventually became the most widely used computer language worldwide.
Joan Clarke – She was a British cryptanalyst and numismatist and is best known for her work as a codebreaker during World War II.
She worked alongside Alan Turing at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma codes. Despite her immense contributions to cybersecurity, her accomplishments were largely ignored until recently. Joan Clarke passed away in 1986. In 2013, she was posthumously awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work as a cryptanalyst.
Her story has been immortalised by Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game.
Valerie Thomas – She is an American data scientist and inventor and is best known for her patented illusion transmitter. After graduating with a degree in physics from Morgan State University, she accepted a position as a data analyst/mathematician at NASA in 1964. She held various positions and worked on different projects until she started leading NASA’s cybersecurity programme in 1989, helping develop protocols NASA computers.
As one of only few women in leadership positions at the time, she helped other women interested in pursuing cybersecurity as a career enter the field. She was involved with professional and educational organisations for minority and female scientists, including the National Technical Association, Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology, Inc., and Women in Science and Engineering.
Women shaping the industries today
Amy Napier – She is the Lead Information Security Engineer at Brivo where she is managing the security programme. She has had a passion for technology, problem solving, and protecting people from her love of games and interest in computers, which led her to pursue a career in Information Security.
Her goal is to protect people’s sensitive data because she has seen terrible losses from identity theft and scams that could have been easily avoided. She began with her CompTIA Security+ certification and working full time while going to school for a Cybersecurity Associates Degree in 2016.
She is still constantly learning and improving herself. She continues taking college courses and plans to earn her Bachelor’s in Software Development and Security this year.
Claire Clark – She is VP of Engineering & Operations at Titania where she leads the development of software that automates accurate network configuration assessments.
She studied computer science and worked for many years in software engineering on mission-critical systems for the police and emergency services. Given the heavy focus on keeping networks and infrastructure well-protected and secure in that environment, she became embedded in the standards around security, like ISO 27001, and decided to get certifications to learn more.
As a woman in cybersecurity, it's important to her to be a positive role model and help improve the ratio and encourage other women to enter the industry and advance into leadership positions. To do this, she co-founded Women 4.0 with Barclays Eaglelabs and C4DI (Centre for Digital Innovation), a platform to inspire, highlight successful women in industry and lead a positive path for the next generation.
Paulina Cakalli – She is Senior Data Analyst at Netacea. She began her career at 21 whilst studying for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tirana, Albania, in 2016. She worked as a Visual Basic Access and SQL developer for one of the biggest marketing and distribution companies in the country; and in a team of 12, Paulina was the only woman. Eager to broaden her skillset and establish herself in the IT industry, Paulina continued to work alongside studying as she carried on doing her master’s degree.
After graduating, she worked as a Data Analyst at the Albanian General Directorate of Industrial Property, Ministry of Finance and Economy. At the same time, she was invited to return to the world of education and lecture Applied Mathematics.
At just 23 years old, Paulina was balancing three jobs simultaneously: lecturing at the top two universities in Albania and working as a data analyst. It was this ambition and drive that led her to her current role at Netacea as a data analyst where she works closely with the data science team to develop new models for detecting anomalous web traffic.
Paulina is not only an exemplary example of a woman in cyber herself, but is also incredibly passionate about encouraging more women to join the cybersecurity industry – and her efforts have not gone unnoticed. In the past couple of years, she has been awarded WomenTech Global Ambassador and WomenTech Community Award (via public vote) by WomenTech Network, whose mission is to support women in STEM. She has also co-founded and organised the conference BSides Tirana in 2022 which has for mission to support and bring the Albanian InfoSec community together.
To know more about her incredible story and how she thinks we can get more women involved in cybersecurity, read her piece for Dark Reading here.
Today, women make up a quarter of cybersecurity professionals and software engineers. Although this is an improvement from a mere 10% a few years back, there is work to be done by schools, universities and employers to attract, empower, retain and grow female talent. Luckily, there are plenty of incredible women in the software engineering and cybersecurity fields like Amy, Claire and Paulina blazing the trail for a more diverse and inclusive industry.