Black and white photograph of two women in the 1940s working on the world's first computer

Interview

The Secret History of Women in Tech

Journalist Claire L. Evans’ book Broad Band proves it took more than dudes in a garage to imagine and build the future

We’ve heard the story so often it’s modern myth. Two young guys with big dreams and hot soldering irons (or sharpened whiteboard markers) in a garage or a dorm room alchemize spare computer parts or bits of consumerism or ill-gotten lines of code into tech gold that reshapes industries, economies, and nations. The names are as familiar as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick, and Morgan: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg.

But what about Grace Hopper? Or Betty Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder? Or Pam Hardt-English? Or Jake Feinler? Or Radia Perlman? Or Wendy Hall? Or Stacy Horn? These women, and countless others, are the hidden heroes of the tech world. They worked on the first computers, the ENIAC and UNIVAC; they wrote breakthrough code, like COBOL; they documented the first websites and created the domain structure for them (.com, .edu, etc); they built the first hypertext systems and social networks; they ensured the early internet wouldn’t collapse in on itself. In other words, women built the infrastructure that allowed for the development and expansion of the systems that run our world.

Journalist Claire L. Evans’s book Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet isn’t the first about women in tech, but it is the best introduction to women critical to the creation of the Digital Age. Broad Band was released in paperback in July, and Evans spoke to The Elective about the contributions of women to technology, why tech history is difficult to write, and how women can shape where things go from here.

black and white photo of author claire l. evans on the left and the cover of her book broad band on the left

Jaclyn-Campanaro (author photo), Penguin Random House (book cover)

Has the book opened up conversations about women in technology?

I was pretty lucky with the timing of the book. I was finishing my final draft and sending it off to my editor around the time that the Google memo, [written by an engineer who argued biological differences “may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership”] was happening, and there was a lot of conversation about Gamergate. So there was already this moment of talking about diversity and inclusion in the tech world. But I think it's really important to have a historical foundation to this conversation, so I think Broad Band landed at a good moment, that people were hungry for these conversations, wanted the facts, wanted the background, wanted a little bit of a story that maybe could parallel some of the bigger, broader mythologies about the genesis of Silicon Valley that we've all been fed over and over again.

I've spoken at a lot of conferences; I've talked to a lot of incredibly well-meaning men in tech who find my book and tell me they're going to give it to their daughters. I'm always like, "Please, you read it. That's the point. Your daughters probably already know some of the stuff." I've spoken to a lot of women in tech who feel validated by it, who are excited to have grandmothers and great-grandmothers to look up to.

Throughout the history of the field, it's often been about the people who make the hardware or the people who get very wealthy. And those are very important, but there really only a small piece of what it means to make a technological object or system that's meaningful. There's so much more to it. There are the people who contribute culturally, there are the people who contribute socially. Those contributions are just as important as of those who write the code. Ultimately, those are the things that touch human life in a much more profound way. So it was important for me to include things like community builders and information scientists and game designers and people who were really not included in a lot of the traditional narratives about tech.

Black and white photograph of two women in the 1940s working on the world's first computer

U.S. Army Photo, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Frances Bilas (right) operate the ENIAC's main control panels.

Was there one person or development that sparked the idea to write the book?

Not particularly. I was writing for Motherboard, and I was doing a series of pieces about forgotten corners of tech history, which tended to include a lot of women in the stories. Whenever I was setting out to research something, like cyber-feminist artists or CD-ROM game designers or interesting outliers in the history of tech, I often found that they were women and I often found that their stories are fascinating and that there were a whole lot of them. There are so many great stories and so many interesting people who just haven't been included in the canon.

When I sat down to write the book, I was so eager to include every woman who had ever contributed to the history of tech that my first draft was basically an encyclopedia. It was not a fun read. But I realized that a lot of these stories could be told with an avatar-like figure, someone like Echo founder Stacy Horn, for example, who sort of scans for all the female moderators and all the female community builders of that era and the present era. She's kind of this signpost that represents them, and then there's all these stories underneath. For every big story in the book, there are hundreds more people doing similar work whose stories are just waiting to be told. I certainly don't think Broad Band is the be-all, end-all document of women in the history of tech. There are so many stories I couldn't include that I look forward to other people telling. It's remarkable how vast this history is. I think as the future begins to feel shorter and shorter, the past feels more and more infinite to me.

Reading Broad Band, I was thinking about other recent books, like Hidden Figures, which tells the stories of the women computers at NASA, and The Glass Universe, which documents the women working at the Harvard Observatory at the turn of the century. You talk about both groups of women in your book, and it feels like there's this slowly growing library about these overlooked contributions to science and tech.

Compared to the story of Steve Jobs hiring the guy from Pepsi or whatever, which has been told nine million times, I will be happy when we get to a point where women's stories are at that level of cultural saturation. Let's keep going. Let's write children's books. Let's make movies. Let's do comics. I feel like we're in an interesting moment where there is something of efflorescence of these kinds of books. There has been great writing about women in tech for a long time. Ellen Ullman has been writing incredible essays about her experience in the tech world for 25 years.  I think there's a zeitgeisty moment now where a lot of it is emerging at once. I'm happy to be in great company with people like Joanne McNeil or Anna Wiener, people who are writing about tech, then and now, and bringing a female perspective to it.

black and white page from the april 1967 issue of cosmopolitan magazine

Cosmopolitan

Women programming the world's "big, dazzling computers" were featured in "The Computer Girls" in the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan. By the end of the decade, "programming" was rebranded "software engineering" and women were increasingly marginalized.

So many of the issues in the book that arose 30, 40, 80 years ago—from content moderation to hate speech and trolls to women innovating or developing a corner of tech only to be pushed out by men—have analogs and corollaries today.

I can't tell you how many times I've read about a technology or an approach to technology that, had it been implemented at scale or with funding early enough, would have given us a completely different world. Where would we be if something like Echo had become something like Facebook? If the effort that Stacy Horn made to make sure that she had a diverse user base, and included people and cared for people, if those efforts were part of how we build systems from the beginning, rather than tacked on after the fact, after people have been hurt, how different would the internet be? How would the internet feel if it were built by people like Wendy Hall, who built these complex hypertext systems that really value the nature of connections between things? Would we have an internet full of 404 errors, falling apart at the seams? Maybe not. And I think that's really exciting because it makes you realize that similar decisions are being made every day, now, that could affect the future. We can study history and see a little bit what's possible when we decide to do something differently. You never know what the consequences will be. Maybe those consequences will be remarkable. The web is a remarkable thing, but I often think about what it would be like if those women had had the opportunity to keep going in the lines of inquiry that they were making.

That makes me think of the story of Nancy Rhine, one of the founders of women.com, who saw people as "citizens before they were consumers," as you put it. It's hard to imagine how different the internet would be if that were the underlying attitude.

The major culture shift happened from the early internet, early web to the post-dot-com era, which initially was seen as a place of communities and then it became a place for commerce. Oftentimes I give talks about the book, and people come up to me afterward and say, "Gee, men sure ruined everything!" Money ruined everything. It's the monetization and the commercialization of the web that brought us to where we are. Of course that tracks with gender quite a bit, historically, but really, at the end of the day, when we're monetizing these connections, we impoverish them in a way.

black and white photo of a woman in glasses sitting in front of a computer and talking on the phone while smiling and waving

courtesy SRI International

Jake Fenler, who established the WHOIS directory of users at the Network Information Center and later created the system of of domain categories (.com. .edu, etc), in her office at the NIC.

It was so interesting to learn about the software crisis in the 1960s, when men were focused on building hardware and women were left to write software but then were jettisoned from the industry. You're writing about it about a decade after Marc Andreessen said "software is eating the world." I interviewed Clive Thompson last year and he said we're now in a moment where software is digesting the world. That seems to really illustrate that gender role in the tech ecosystem. Now, software is the path to becoming a billionaire and it's dominated by men. But it's also a culture dominated by the now at the expense of not only the long-ago past but the relatively recent past, too. And all that gets put on display at these bizarre launch events. I've been to a few—it's like attending a revival meeting.

It's a very weird culture, there's no denying that. I think part of it is, in order to successfully sell a new piece of hardware or a new piece of software, you have to behave so that everything that came before instantly ceases to exist the moment the new thing arrives. So you have to willfully buy into the new in this way that is unrealistic and unsustainable, and the only way you can really do that is by taking it to a kind of, I don't know, spiritual, evangelical kind of cult place. Otherwise, you have to contend with the fact that the world is littered with the detritus of every other tech launch up until that moment. The new doesn't have to obliterate the old, that's one of my strongest beliefs. When new things are introduced, it only means that the interconnection between everything that's ever existed and been thought of or imagined up until that point becomes even more rich and complex. It doesn't mean the old has to be disposed of so radically. There are lots of really rich ideas and opportunities in yesterday's tech.

Does that mentality in tech make it difficult for a history—just generally, not specifically your book—to make an impact?

It makes it difficult to write a history, certainly. The medium of the web has been constantly eating and rewriting itself for decades. Even trying to track down the history of a website—it can have been so many things over the years. If it wasn't for the Wayback Machine and the Internet Archive, we would have no idea. The archival practices are not very robust because the drive is always for the new and for replacing the old, and we forget how important that history might become. So, yeah, from a practical standpoint, it's very difficult to write a history of contemporary technology, recent technology.

In fact, a lot of the research I was able to do about the early web was largely from books from that era. There was a moment in the beginning of the web when web indexes were often published with lists of websites and the things that were available on them. Before search engines made it possible to just search for what you were looking for, you'd have to buy these kind of Yellow Pages of websites, and if we didn't have those, I wouldn't know where to look for a lot of the things I wrote about in the book. The internet is ephemeral, and software is ephemeral, too. That's why the early female programmers in the '40s and '50s were so easily forgotten. The ENIAC is something that you can put into them, but all the programs that ran on the ENIAC were just these temporary arrangements of cables and time. They weren't documented, they weren't kept. In order to understand them we have to almost entirely rebuild them, and that's much more difficult to memorialize in any kind of concrete way.

black and white photo of a woman with short hair and glasses standing with her arms crossed in front of a computer and printer

Jim Estrin/The New York Times/Redux

Stacy Horn, the founder of Echo, a New York-focused community group that served as a nascent social network for the city, in the mid-1990s.

You write in the book about the women and their experiences that "the lessons they learned in the process would serve us well today if we listen.” How do we do that, especially as tech gets noisier?

Man, isn't that the question? I don't know. I think we have to make space for tools and platforms that do not have global domination as their core goals. I think we have to give up this notion that we can build things that can benefit billions of people at once. I think we have to focus on smaller communities, smaller voices, smaller platforms, smaller gestures, and try to amplify those rather than wade through the chaos of something like a Facebook feed. That being said, it's difficult to do.

I was a science writer for many years, but I've also been a musician for many years. I know that even before the internet, people were building networks of independent music culture that were profoundly robust and held together by twine and paper clips. But that worked. People build networks and connect with one another, regardless of what platform they're using. I think that will always be there. I think we need to build tools that make it easy and then empower people to build their own communities and to create their own sense of place.

black and white photo of a woman smiling as she types at computer keyboard

courtesy of the University of Southampton

Wendy Hall demonstrating Microcosm, the hypertext system she created, in her research lab in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Southampton.

Let’s say a young woman who wants to work in tech reads the book and sees all these great contributions and is hopeful, then goes on social media and experiences the toxicity and lack of representation, especially in STEM education. What should she make of this moment we're in?

I think it's something we have to hit from all angles. Yes, we need to provide robust STEM education for all kids at a young age. It took a generation and change to get to this place where the tech industry that was dominated by women in the '40s and '50s slowly mutated into a tech industry that's pretty much perceived as being a boys club. But that took a while to create, and a lot of the process of creating it was cultural. It came from marketing images and films and pop culture. And a lot of work needs to be done to undo and rescript that for the next generation. It's going to take a while.

But I also would encourage young women interested in tech to not only fight for a seat at the table but to build their own table. It's nice to think about alternatives. The dominant platforms and companies are not that old. These companies didn't exist 10, 15, 20 years ago. We can rebuild these things from the ground up. The history of tech has always been this project of collaborative genesis that can happen at any moment. We can keep that tradition alive and build better and different things. Maybe the models we're putting in right now are so broken that they're unfixable. I would also encourage people to think about engaging in tech as not just a traditional path through computer science education or engineering education into the workplace but something that can happen on many different levels—on cultural levels and social levels, as well.

There are many ways of contributing to the dialogue, the discourse, the system, that aren't just learning how to code and building a startup. There are other things we can do that maybe are open to people with very different skill sets we haven't even considered yet. So it can be quite open—if we're willing to have the imagination for it. We need to give ourselves permission to dream.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.