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Grace Hopper inspires computer girls

Bahar Abbaspour, Lena Strömbäck, Anna Vapen and Maria Holmqvist. (Photo: Åke Hjelm)

Bahar Abbaspour, Lena Strömbäck, Anna Vapen and Maria Holmqvist. (Photo: Åke Hjelm)

A computer conference just for women – does one exist? Yes. Last week, ten computer women from LiU were in Atlanta, Georgia, USA to be inspired by female role models at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Grace Hopper was a computer pioneer who coined the word ‘bug’ and laid the foundation for the programming language COBOL. In 1980 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from LiU. The conference in her honour is being held for the tenth time. One of the visitors to the premiere conference in 1994 was Lena Strömbäck, then a young graduate student at the Department of Computer and Information Science (IDA).

“It was in Washington DC and I remember listening to a lecture on compliers, by a woman my mother’s age. It was an awesome experience - before then I’d only heard men speaking in that context,” said Strömbäck, now a senior lecturer and director of studies at the Department of Computer and Information Science, and the ‘tour guide’ for the LiU group of three doctoral students and six students from various programmes.

“I’m looking forward to meeting senior women researchers and studying their experiences,” said Maria Holmqvist, a cognitive scientist pursuing her doctorate in machine translation - work she presented during the conference.

Computer and IT education at LiU suffers from a shortage of women, like other Swedish universities. Bahar Abbaspour, a master’s student in computer technology, had at most five other women studying alongside her during her undergraduate studies. The same lopsided distribution, of course, applies up the career ladder (even if IDA has relatively many women in leading positions).

But in the infancy of computer science, there were a lot of women in this new field of research.

“Then they disappeared, and no one really knows why,” Strömbäck said.

The best known pioneer was Grace Hopper (1906-1992). Or Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a rank she achieved as a volunteer during the Second World War. In 1944, she started working with electromechanical mathematical machines at Harvard University, and later with ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers.

According to the myths, she was the one who originated the term ‘bug’ – when she encountered an interruption that was due to an actual bug that had gotten lost among the cables and radio tubes. More scientifically, she is known for her work with compilers and her understanding of instructions in everyday language, which led to the development of the programming language COBOL.

Now thousands of attendees travelled from across the globe to her conference, themed “Collaborating Across Boundaries”. The programme was stuffed with lectures and workshops like all large conferences (a more unusual feature was the baby changing facilities and nursery). LiU participants were, among other things, aiming for a track on open source code and how such applications can be of use in the Third World.

The trip was largely financed from the Department’s equal opportunity pool.

Therese Winder 2010-10-06

Page manager: therese.winder@liu.se
Last updated: 2010-10-06