Tomorrow marks the birth of Betty Holberton 98 years ago. Not a landmark anniversary and one would be forgiven for not knowing who she was. However, Holberton's story is fascinating and particularly pertinent given the current skills shortage in the UK and the fact that International Women's Day is this weekend.
She was one of the six original programmers of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first general purpose electronic digital computer. This ground breaking work earned Holberton and her five colleagues induction into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997.
Holberton, who was born in Philadelphia, is a role model in terms of her chosen field and the challenges she faced. A notable one was during the Second World War on her first day at the University of Pennsylvania when her maths professor suggested she had a duty to stay at home bring up a family.
Instead, Holberton switched courses and studied journalism as this was one of the few careers open to women in the 1940s. However, the war effort meant men were away fighting so some women were asked by the US army to work with computers calculating the trajectories of missiles. Holberton joined the Moore School of Engineering and was chosen to be of one of six women to program the ENIAC. The rest as they say is history, Holberton continued to work at the cutting edge of computing following the end of the war.
Unfortunately Holberton's experience on her first day at university still has a familiar ring to it even 75 years on. While the idea that the only place for women is in the home is thankfully becoming outdated, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are still too often seen to be the preserve of men. We have a poor track record of attracting girls and young women into science, engineering and technological studies.
Encouraging girls to study STEM subjects should not be seen as merely a campaign to ensure equality within the classroom or laboratory. The UK has a skills shortage when it comes to STEM and more highly trained STEM graduates would boost our economic potential. Closing the gender STEM deficit seems the most obvious way to close this skills gap.
The UK is home to many manufacturers that are world leaders but how much could be achieved if more young people of both sexes were encouraged to pursue careers in STEM? If the long term aim of rebalancing the UK economy away from financial services is to be achieved we must help other industries to grow by providing them with a 21st century workforce.
The theme for this year's International Women's Day is “Make it Happen”. Taking inspiration from Holberton's success, we should do all we can to promote STEM studies and the career opportunities available. This requires schools, universities, government and business all to work together. No group, whether defined by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or social background, should feel that STEM is the preserve of others.
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