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Why do we need Women’s History Month?

March celebrates both Women’s History Month, a celebration of women in history, culture, and society, celebrated in the US since 1987, and International Women’s Day, a celebration of women’s social, political and economic progress, celebrated in many countries beginning in 1911. The two celebrations dovetail nicely, with International Women’s Day serving as an annual check-in on the progress (or lack thereof) of women’s global march to pay equity, and Women’s History Month celebrating the stories, accomplishments and insights of noted women throughout history. Yet at a time when the world is facing so many profound and urgent challenges, it’s natural to ask the question of why Women’s History Month and celebrations like this matter.
 
I would break this into two questions. The first is, why does history matter? Given the state of rapid technological advancement in the twenty-first century, it’s easy for us to assume that we live in a radically different age and that past history has nothing to teach us. But as Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne argue in Tools and Weapons, “for every current challenge that seems unprecedented, there is often a historical counterpart that, while distinct, has insights for our day.” History matters because it gives us a rich set of examples of how individuals, organisations and societies have wrestled with and solved complex challenges in the past. This gives us a wealth of insights, frameworks and perspectives to tackle our current challenges. We can see the value of learning from history right now, as historians surface examples and learnings from prior global epidemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu, in an effort to help us battle COVID-19.
 
If we accept that an understanding of history gives us a rich set of resources to solve today’s problems, the next natural question is: why does women’s history matter? Quite simply, it matters because “history is written by the victors.” This old saying applies directly to the history of famous battles — when the winning side gets to be the one to tell the story, often subverting or ignoring the goals and strategies of the losing side. The concept equally applies to the victory of the status quo and the biases and power structures inherent in it as applied to our common understanding of history. Women’s History Month serves as a corrective to the pervasiveness of patriarchy in modern history — just as Black History month, Hispanic and Native American Heritage months — serve as correctives to structures of racism in history. By recovering the lost stories, discoveries, artwork and brilliance of women and people of color, we gain a rich new set of examples and resources, frameworks and approaches, that can help us make a difference and solve some of the most complex problems confronting the world today. Time Magazine gives us an excellent example of this kind of historical recovery, in which they reimagine their annual “Person of the Year” issue by recognising 100 years of “Women of the Year.”

Gender parity is still 100 years ahead of us

We need the help of women’s history to confront a very sobering reality. The World Economic Forum, in its 2020 report on gender parity, estimates that neither our generation nor our children’s will see women achieve gender parity with men. They estimate that this milestone is 99.5 years in the future. The Forum measures gender parity across four dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. While progress is being made in Education, Health and Political empowerment, one of the biggest contributors to the slow march of gender parity progress is the lack of women in technical fields like cloud computing and AI. “One important area of concern is that of economic participation and opportunity…. not enough women are entering professions where wage growth is the most pronounced (most obviously, but not exclusively, technology).”
 
Looking to the future, the report reveals that the greatest challenge preventing the economic gender gap from closing is women’s under-representation in emerging roles. In cloud computing, just 12% of professionals are women. Similarly, in engineering and data and AI, the numbers are 15% and 26% respectively. In terms of economic participation, the gender gap will take 257 years to close. This represents a 55 year increase to the gender parity gap from the 2019 report — a further widening due to low levels of female leadership, entrance into technology professions and lack of care infrastructure and access to capital.

Women’s History Month gives us crucial role models 

One of the most critical tactics for addressing the lack of women entering technical disciplines is the need for young girls to see the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines as welcoming for them. That’s why we need to celebrate role models like:
 
  • Ada Lovelace, (1815 – 1852): An English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She was the first to recognise that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine.  
  • Grace Hopper, (1906-1992): A well-known example of a STEM pioneer and American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. One of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, she was a pioneer of computer programming who invented one of the first linkers. She popularised the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, an early high-level programming language still in use today
  • Hedy Lamar, (1914-2000): An Austrian-born American film actress and inventor who was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. At the beginning of World War II, Lamar and composer George Antheil developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes, intended to use frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers.
  • Katherine Johnson, (1918-2020): An American mathematician and NASA employee whose calculations were essential to the first and subsequent NASA space missions and pioneering the use of computers to perform complex manual calculations
  • Shakuntala Devi, (1929-2013): A renowned Indian author and pioneer in homosexuality rights in India. She also earned the nickname  of “Human Computer” for her mental calculations, traveling the world demonstrating her capability to calculate complex problems in seconds (like the twenty-third root of a 201 digit number in 50 seconds)
  • Margaret Hamilton, (1936- ): An American computer scientist, systems engineer and business owner. She was director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo program.
 
These diverse and powerful women help us to see that technical disciplines have relied for over 150 years on the contributions of women. Though not always recognised, these stories help to inspire the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and technologists. At Microsoft, we engage this generation in programs like DigiGirlz, a Microsoft program designed to introduce middle- and high-school young women to careers in technology. While Microsoft and the broader technology industry have much still to do, we can see the steady progress made by such programs — for instance, more than 50% of the Microsoft Advertising division is powered by women.
 
History matters because it helps us to create strategies and approaches for solving the problems of today. Women’s history matters because it helps us recognise the ideas, contributions and profiles of women who can inspire the next generation of women in technology. By recovering the history of women in technology, we can prove to the girls of today that science, technology and math are domains where women can make a huge impact. Once they see that domain as their own, we can accelerate the pace of women’s economic participation and advancement — so that perhaps our children will live to see the day when the gender gap is a mere relic of history.
 
As this celebratory month closes, I ask you, whether you are a parent, aunt or uncle, a business owner, mentor, team leader or employee, how can you help shape herstory for an equitable future? We can all play a powerful role in shaping and inspiring and most importantly decreasing the gender parity gap. As Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund famously and eloquently said, “We can’t be what we can’t see.” These words light up a critical pathway to our improved progress and future — role models, particularly within computer science — offer the young women of today a vision of what they can be tomorrow.