Over the course of the CS major at my school, especially in years two and three (roughly equivalent to years 1 and 2 at a university), as I introduce my students to significant advances in Computer Science, I include some information about the scientists who were instrumental in making those advances. This includes people such as Church, Turing, von Neumann, Knuth, Babbage, Chomksy, Dijkstra... all prominent CS luminaries. They are also all male. Over the three years that I teach my students, I want to be able to paint a more accurately balanced picture of the field than there have been zero contributions by women.

There is also research that back up the assertion that, in the interests of helping to encourage females to enter the STEM fields, it is important to include "people who look like me".

Who, then, are scientists that are, or were, prominent in the field of computer science and whose important work is appropriate to incorporate into the early years of a CS degree?

I do not intend to hit them over the head with this, and I do not want to emphasize interesting biographical excerpts, since it is not a history of CS course. I want to emphasize the CS itself and only introduce the relevant scientists as part of the CS concept being discussed. This means that not every female computer scientist is appropriate, even if they did prominent work. Even with these more limited choices, the clear subtext should be that women really have added important things to this field.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a list question and would be closed on most other sites in the network. $\endgroup$ – curiousdannii Jul 11 '17 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ @curiousdannii cs.meta.stackexchange.com/a/137/23002 $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jul 11 '17 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @BenI. "avoid asking subjective questions where … every answer is equally valid" Exactly what this is. This is not only an unbounded list question, but a list question based on the very subjective "What you think is substantial"! $\endgroup$ – curiousdannii Jul 11 '17 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ "Every answer is equally valid" would be fair if there were no judging criteria, but there are strong criteria here. Certainconcepts get covered early on in a CS degree with more or less perfect regularity, some get covered sometimes, and many concepts never get covered. I am not enumerating those sets in this question, but they nevertheless exist. The stronger the tie-in to early CS concepts, the better the match. This could theoretically be enumerated and statistically matched to find a statistical "best answer". $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jul 11 '17 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ Please don't use the comments to answer the question. I will be deleting attempts to answer the question from comments. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jul 14 '17 at 11:11

18 Answers 18


I think Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is perhaps the easiest to explain to new students, and to tie in with an important advancement in computer science.

I try to discuss the transition from early programming in machine language to programming in higher level languages. I'll usually show the students some machine code that I will tediously decrypt. Then I show and talk about assembly languages. Then I'll make a point that "there has to be a better way". Then I'll introduce Grace Hopper and her ideas about compiled languages. Showing a little COBOL code with English words and contrasting it to the equivalent machine code is striking.


Ada Lovelace is considered the first programmer - pretty good introduction to a CS class. As Wikipedia puts it:

She was the first to recognise that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and created the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first to recognise the full potential of a "computing machine" and the first computer programmer.

So you could also talk about her when you talk about algorithms. She also did some early work explaining how Babbage's machines worked:

During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Lovelace translated the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea's article on Babbage's newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. Explaining the Analytical Engine's function was a difficult task, as even many other scientists did not really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested in it. Lovelace's notes even had to explain how the Analytical Engine differed from the original Difference Engine. Her work was well received at the time; the scientist Michael Faraday described himself as a supporter of her writing.

She also realized the potential of computers for things other than just number crunching, which Babbage himself did not think about. As computer historian Doron Swade put it:

In Babbage's world his engines were bound by number...What Lovelace saw—what Ada Byron saw—was that number could represent entities other than quantity. So once you had a machine for manipulating numbers, if those numbers represented other things, letters, musical notes, then the machine could manipulate symbols of which number was one instance, according to rules. It is this fundamental transition from a machine which is a number cruncher to a machine for manipulating symbols according to rules that is the fundamental transition from calculation to computation—to general-purpose computation—and looking back from the present high ground of modern computing, if we are looking and sifting history for that transition, then that transition was made explicitly by Ada in that 1843 paper.

Finally, she also thought about (and dismissed) artificial intelligence:

She wrote that "The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths." This objection has been the subject of much debate and rebuttal, for example by Alan Turing in his paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence".

Also see this website for other women to consider.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; please move this conversation to the more open format of the dedicated room in chat. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jul 15 '17 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ Moved other women to CW answer. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 16 '17 at 15:01

You should probably teach Barbara Liskov and her substitution principle in an introductory CS class. Oh, and she also won some random award... like a Turing award or something... =P

Barbara Liskov was one of the first women to be granted a doctorate in computer science in the United States and

has led many significant projects, including the Venus operating system, a small, low-cost and interactive timesharing system; the design and implementation of CLU; Argus, the first high-level language to support implementation of distributed programs and to demonstrate the technique of promise pipelining; and Thor, an object-oriented database system.

Most famously, she developed the Liskov substitution principle, which is a principle in object oriented programming

stating that, in a computer program, if S is a subtype of T, then objects of type T may be replaced with objects of type S (i.e. an object of type T may be substituted with any object of a subtype S) without altering any of the desirable properties of T (correctness, task performed, etc.)

She won the Turing award for her work developing languages and principles that led to object oriented programming. She was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. She also won the John von Neumann medal for "fundamental contributions to programming languages, programming methodology, and distributed systems".


One of my favorite iconoclastic point-outs is Dorothy Vaughan. One of the USA space program's first computer programmers, who was originally hired as a computer. She was an African-American who grew up under segregation. In spite of this, her direct contributions to the space program and computer programming are large. Her influence on many others, who also were instrumental, was enough to create many more luminaries for NASA. Katherine Johnson, the primary subject of the book and movie Hidden Figures (Dorothy is also in the book and movie), was influenced by her.

I consider Dorothy to be an iconoclastic point-out because she didn't come from "money", didn't have any "advantages" or handouts, she did it all herself. She obviously was a female in a man's world and did it well. Not only did she learn and use FORTRAN, she also taught it to other computers (also female) who became programmers for NASA.

The fact that she was in the space program helps recommend her to students. Many students, even if not interested in space themselves, still seem to hold people in the space fields as higher than others. I can't say why but I'm not afraid to use that to their own advantage.

  • $\begingroup$ I removed the mention of the second computer to make your answer more focused; feel free to rollback if you disagree with the edit. $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 16 '17 at 20:10

Shafi Goldwasser is the 2012 Turing award laurete, together with Silvio Micali. The two are considered to be more-or-less the founders of the modern theory of cryptography. They were the first to provide a satisfactory definition of "when should an encryption scheme be considered secure?" and "when should a function be considered pseudo-random", and to come up with notion of "zero-knowledge proofs", a concept that is both amazing on the conceptual level and very useful on the practical level (some of those works were joints works with other people).

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Or! Welcome to Computer Science Educators. This is a very interesting answer, and I hope to see you around the site more, contributing your knowledge. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jul 10 '17 at 23:09

Radia Perlman

She is most famous for her invention of the spanning-tree protocol (STP) [...]. She also made large contributions to many other areas of network design and standardization, such as link-state protocols, including TRILL, which she invented to correct some of the shortcomings of spanning-trees.

She also wrote a poem about STP :)

I think that I shall never see
A graph more lovely than a tree.
A tree whose crucial property
Is loop-free connectivity.
A tree that must be sure to span
So packets can reach every LAN.
First, the root must be selected.
By ID, it is elected.
Least-cost paths from root are traced.
In the tree, these paths are placed.
A mesh is made by folks like me,
Then bridges find a spanning tree.

  • $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome to CSEducators Stack Exchange! What a wonderful answer. I hope we'll be hearing more from you. $\endgroup$ – ItamarG3 Jul 11 '17 at 13:28

Hedy Lamarr, the famous actress, worked with George Antheil during World War II to create a radio system for the US Navy that was safe from jamming by the Axis powers, contributing greatly to the development of frequency hopping, or switching a signal between many frequency channels, which is used quite a bit in current day network design, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and and other technologies. This work lead them to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. You could mention her and her work when you learn about and discuss networking and how it is implemented.

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    $\begingroup$ She has quite an interesting story! Nice first post, and welcome to Computer Science Educators. I hope we hear more from you in the future! $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jul 10 '17 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ +1 Wow... Hollywood film star who also "developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes"... I'm just gonna crawl back in my hole now. Though sadly (for the purposes of this question) it seems like she was more of a female electrical engineer rather than computer scientist? I wouldn't really call frequency hopping and spread-spectrum technology a CS thing, especially not something you'd talk about in an undergrad class. How I wish there was a way to talk about her though. $\endgroup$ – user541686 Jul 10 '17 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ This is a controversial case, as Lamarr's contribution was simply application of a known technique to a specific task (torpedo control). She neither invented nor extended frequency-hopping itself. $\endgroup$ – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jul 12 '17 at 19:57

Adele Goldberg was one of the seven programmers that developed Smalltalk, one of the first object oriented programming languages - so nice for your OOP unit. Many concepts developed by her team became the basis of graphical user interfaces.

There are many other women listed at Wikipedia's women in computer programming page that you could draw from.

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    $\begingroup$ You can mention Adele Goldberg and Barbara Liskov in the same lecture, the history of object-oriented programming languages. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Jul 12 '17 at 15:28

I'd also consider Margaret Hamilton.

enter image description here

Aside from the awesome nerdy picture, she has

published over 130 papers, proceedings, and reports about the 60 projects and six major programs in which she has been involved.

She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her work on NASA's Apollo missions developing on-board flight software. She had many areas of expertise you could mention her in the context of:

Her areas of expertise include systems design and software development, enterprise and process modelling, development paradigm, formal systems modeling languages, system-oriented objects for systems modelling and development, automated life-cycle environments, methods for maximizing software reliability and reuse, domain analysis, correctness by built-in language properties, open-architecture techniques for robust systems, full life-cycle automation, quality assurance, seamless integration, error detection and recovery techniques, man-machine interface systems, operating systems, end-to-end testing techniques, and life-cycle management techniques.

However, one thing she did stands out as something you could emphasize, and that was her work on the Universal Systems Language, which used the concept of Development Before the Fact (DBTF). Basically, it was a system to help plan software programs. Since this is something beginner programmers often don't do but should, this sort of idea is the perfect thing to emphasize.

She also emphasized making software as reliable as possible:

Dr. Paul Curto, senior technologist who nominated Hamilton for a NASA Space Act Award, called Hamilton's work "the foundation for ultra-reliable software design."

Her work making the Apollo 11 onboard systems as reliable as possible likely saved the mission from failure.

She also gave the whole field of software engineering a sense of legitimacy...and a name:

During this time at MIT, she wanted to give their software "legitimacy", just like with other engineering disciplines, so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect; and, as a result she made up the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from other kinds of engineering.


Nancy G. Leveson is a pioneer in software safety.

I read her article, co-authored with Clark S. Turner, on the Therac-25 Accidents as an undergraduate and found it approachable and interesting. (She co-taught Software Engineering the quarter I took it.)

She has also, as Ellen Spertus points out, been active in helping other women become computer scientists.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Shannon! Welcome to Computer Science Educators! Thanks for the well sourced and useful answer! I hope to see you around the site more! $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jul 10 '17 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ IMHO, both the investigation on the Therac-25 and Feynman's "Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle" should be read by every engineer. $\endgroup$ – ninjalj Jul 12 '17 at 11:04

To expand your terms of reference for "people who look like me", you should definitely include Sophie Wilson (born Roger Wilson). She was one of the major developers of the Acorn Atom, and later designed the instruction set for the ARM1. Virtually every mobile phone in the world uses ARM devices derived from her work, which makes her pretty damn significant in terms of CS.

I was lucky enough to meet her briefly at the "Beeb@30" event a few years ago. I'm aware that for her, the fact that she transitioned is very much a past event. But for younger trans people, she may provide a figurehead to show that your gender identity does not limit your ability to realise your potential. Ceilingcat's answer below also references Lynn Conway as another similar example.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CSEducators Stack Exchange! This is Avery interesting answer. I hope we'll be hearing more from you. $\endgroup$ – ItamarG3 Jul 11 '17 at 13:12

While some may have varying opinions, I am a big admirer of Lynn Conway. She originally began her career at IBM and invented pioneering technologies that were eventually used in modern dynamic execution microarchitectures. After being fired for revealing her intention to transition to a female gender role, she essentially was forced to "reboot" her career from scratch.

Some years later, at Xerox PARC, she coauthored the seminal textbook on VLSI design with Carver Mead. Many of the design principles from this textbook are still valid today on modern nanometer scale semiconductor fabrication processes.

It is unfortunate that Lynn Conway was forced to restart her career anew but it perhaps serves as an example of what one might be able to accomplish if one perseveres.


Can't believe no one mentioned Nancy Lynch at MIT of FLP fame, a pioneer in distributed systems theory. The FLP is an impossibility result about obtaining consensus in a distributed system with potentially faulty processes (or, more succinctly, processes).

A good way to introduce in CS would be discussing concurrency and having the students try to implement a 'simple' system that does deterministically sequential writes and then break them. Nothing like trying to get computers to agree on the temporal sequence of events to make you feel pain in your bones at the mention of the concept. Threads are bad enough.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. Thanks for joining CSE. I hope we see more posts from you. $\endgroup$ – Ellen Spertus Jul 13 '17 at 20:16

With RED (Random Early Detection or Random Early Drop) Sally Floyd was a pioneer in the field of Active Queue Management algorithms. She is also co-author of many important RFCs (SACK, ECN). She received the IEEE Internet Award in 2005 and the ACM SIGCOMM Award in 2007.

Also in the field of AQM, Kathleen Nichols is a co-author of the CoDel algorithm. She discovered bugs in RED, and co-authored an unpublished paper on RED called "RED in a Different Light", where a toilet tank was used as an example of a servo system.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi ninjalj! Welcome to Computer Science Educators! This is an interesting first answer, thanks for contributing your knowledge here. I hope to see you around the site more. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jul 14 '17 at 10:28

First, Klari von Neumann. If you've read "Turing's Cathedral," you know that a lot of the software for the ENIAC, WRT calculations for the early atomic bombs, were written by her. Her husband was the renowned computer scientist John von Neumann, but while he came up with a lot of the theory, she did much of the coding which made him look so good.

When they were creating the MANIAC computer, it was not uncommon for her to approach the hardware engineers and ask if they could add an instruction which implemented a certain sequence of instructions, because her programming was using that sequence often and adding an instruction in hardware would shrink the size of the program (memory was hideously expensive, back then). Quite often, when she asked, she had very well-reasoned arguments for it so the hardware engineers would add it. As such, you could also regard her as the creator of CISC instruction sets.

  • $\begingroup$ I edited to remove one of the women you mentioned because I didn't think she was relevant to the question. Feel free to rollback if you'd like! $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 16 '17 at 13:44

Joanna Rutkowska is a Polish security expert. She created a "blue pill" attack and explained it at the Black Hat Briefings conference in Las Vegas, and also worked with another programmer on Qubes OS, a security oriented desktop Xen distribution. She would be relevant to a discussion of computer security and making ones' programs secure (sanitizing inputs, etc). She's also a more current figure than most people listed already.

For a nice resource listing others see Female innovators at work by Danielle Newnham from Apress 2016, in which she presents 20 living women on top of technology. For my classes I always look for diversity of women to present (age, race, tech field, alive/historical, etc) in order to help dismantle the monolithic gender view.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Computer Science Educators. This is a very interesting answer, and I hope to see you around the site more $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Jul 12 '17 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ I removed the women who I didn't think were relevant to the question (relevant to topics in introductory CS classes). Feel free to rollback if you disagree! $\endgroup$ – heather Jul 16 '17 at 15:54

Here is a list of answers from the comments on the question and some low quality answers. If you want to turn them into complete answers, please make sure to address the achievements and, more importantly the way these people could be mentioned in a CS class.

  • There are plenty of notable females in computer gaming such as Carol Shaw - considered the first woman in the computer gaming industry and Dona Bailey - the creator of the Centipede game – B540Glenn

  • In addition to the historical greats that have been mentioned (Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Hedy Lamarr) you may want to look at modern stuff - aparently RedHat has a "women in open source" award - redhat.com/en/about/women-in-open-source - and recently(?) announced winners – ivanivan

  • There were some pretty advanced hacking done by en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joanna_Rutkowska but I am not sure that this is what qualifies for the question – Sarge Borsch

  • If you are willing to consider practitioners in the field in addition to those who advanced CS as a science, I would nominate Margaret Hamilton (flight software for the Apollo space program) as someone who did very important work and a bit more recently than some of the people who are usually named (e.g. Lovelace, Hopper). You might also want to consider Jean Sammet (COBOL development team; first female president of the ACM) who passed away recently. – njuffa

  • Other practitioners of note: The ENIAC programmers, a team of six female programmers active at the dawn of electronic computing. – njuffa

  • If you're willing to widen to mathematicians as well, Emmy Noether contributed a ton to abstract algebra, which has impacts in CS (depending on your field). – apnorton

  • There's also Judith M. S. Prewitt, who invented the Prewitt operator to detect edges in images – user45891

  • Kay McNulty, who invented the subroutine - Brad Johnson

  • Betty Snyder, who invented the merge sort generator - Brad Johnson

  • I know this is partially off-topic but it might be worth mentioning tragic history of Turing for the LGBT+ community for 'people like me'. I'm sure most people do know story of Turing but for those who don't know - he was forced to take hormone to reduce libido as homosexuality was considered a crime back then - or at least mental illness. It is assumed that he committed suicide because of that. It was only posthumously when UK government pardoned him and issued an apology. – Maciej Piechotka

  • Betty Jennings (Jean Bartik)

  • Marlyn Wescoff

  • Fran Bilas

  • Elise Shutt

  • Ruth Lichterman

  • Ida Rhodes

  • Lois Haibt

  • Frances Allen is a pioneer in the field of optimizing compilers. Later she became a thought leader at IBM as well as a strong supporter of education. There is an oral history page at IBM. Fran is in the IBM Hall of Fame with many other women.

  • Susan Merritt's early work was in algorithms. Among other things she proposed a taxonomy of sorting algorithms that is very useful as a mental model for beginners learning about sorting. She also did work on Algorithms for Dijkstra's Longest Upsequence Problem which is pretty easy to state. Later in her career she became the founding Dean of the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University (NY) where she became a national leader in post-secondary education in the US.


If you just throw out a few token examples and move on, I'm afraid you won't be giving a true picture of the situation. Those famous women didn't just come out of nowhere. There were thousands of women working in the field behind the exceptional cases. Women were a vital, irreplaceable part of the early history of computing.

Originally "computer" was a job title, not a type of machine. For the first half of the 20th Century, probably the vast majority of computers were in fact female.

enter image description here Here's a picture from 1949 of the "Computer Room" at the NACA High Speed Flight Station (now NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center).

While the managers were (of course) men, the staff who worked at Bletchley Park during WWII decrypting the German codes were largely women (8,000 of them, or 75% of the work force).

enter image description here Here's a picture of the Mark 2 Colossus (one of the first programmable electronic computers) at Bletchley Park during WWII, with its operators.

The important thing to note here is that the present situation where women stereotypically aren't into math or computing is entirely cultural. Back when we had a different culture, things were different. This is likely the reason why so many pioneers in the field of computing were women.

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    $\begingroup$ While all this is true, is any of it relevant? The question is about computer scientists, not computer operators, however skilful one may have needed to be to operate an early computer. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Jul 17 '17 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterTaylor - The lines between the two were a lot blurrier back then. But I think I justified this approach in my first paragraph. If you don't buy that argument, then I guess your point is quite relevant. $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Jul 17 '17 at 14:42

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