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Women on a Mission

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What if I told you that not too long ago, you could apply for a job and be hired as a Computer? You wouldn’t be given one when you walked in on your first day, and you wouldn’t be sitting at one all day – you were hired as the computer. Your job would be to work as a team to calculate long form equations, manually. During the 1930’s and 40’s, human computers were employed by many organisations for a number of services.

During WWII, President Eisenhower started an initiative to get more African Americans into the workforce. In NASA’s research facility in Langley, groups of African American woman were hired to work as computers to assist with The Great Space Race. One of these women was Dorothy Vaughn. In 1949, she became the acting supervisor of the West Area Computers (a group of all African American women), preparing them for the next great technological age. She was an early observer of the real power of mechanical computers and when an IBM 7090 Data Processing System – a system with less computing power than some modern toasters – arrived at her workplace, she trained herself and her team in the programing language FORTRAN, transforming her team of computers into programmers.

Whilst this was happening, Vaughn recommended Katherine Johnson leave her office and move to the Guidance and Control Division to calculate answers no one else could solve. Katherine was tasked with calculating trajectories; their launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for space missions. She was renowned for her accuracy and proficiency, and became a highly respected member of her otherwise all male team. All the while, NASA, for the first time, had used an electronic system, the IBM 7090 Data Processing System, to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. However, he refused to proceed with the launch until Johnson (whom he named and asked for her personally) had verified the calculations saying “if she says they’re good, I’m ready to go”.

Hidden Figures Movie scene - Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), flanked by fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) meet the man they helped send into orbit, John Glenn (Glen Powell). Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), flanked by fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) meet the man they helped send into orbit, John Glenn (Glen Powell), in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Another woman who thrived from the West Area Computers was Mary Jackson. Although initially hired as a computer, in 1953 Jackson accepted an offer to work for Kazimierz Czarnecki, an engineer who worked in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to study so that she could become fully qualified as an engineer. In order to receive the training she needed, she would need to attend night classes offered by the University of Virginia at an all–white high school in Hampton. Undeterred, Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her attend the segregated school and took her case to a local court, which ruled in her favour. As a result, she successfully completed her courses and went on to not only become an aerospace engineer, but NASA’s first African American Female Engineer.

These three women were innovative, courageous and groundbreaking. They refused to take no for an answer. They fought to overcome the barriers society had put in front of them. Although these amazing stories occurred over 50 years ago, they are still relevant today. Women still face barriers in areas such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Industries. It’s essential for women to pursue careers in this field, as they are able to bring ingenuity and innovation to these industries and even – just like Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson – instigate social change for the better.

Technology is constantly transforming the world around us, pushing us into new and exciting fields of discovery. Everyone has the right to be a part of that change.

Find out more about these remarkable women and the impact women have had at IBM Here.

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