/ Who is Margaret Hamilton?
A game-changing pioneer who put a man on the moon, that’s who!
But before we dive into how she’s advanced gender equality, imagine what it was like to be a woman in NASA.
Can you picture it?
The year is 1965, the time of babydoll bobs, mod-print box-cut dresses, and kitten heels.
The Draper Laboratory at M.I.T. is stifling and crammed with desks and stacks of paper. The only sound is the scratching of pencils as brilliant minds work on coding problems.
010101011110000011010101110101 100011101010101101010000110100 100010101010010100101010101011 010110001010101001010010010111 010111100000110101011010101010 010100100101110100101010010101
It’s up to you. You must find the errors in the thousands of pages of code.
Sweat beads on your brow as it sinks in: The only things keeping the astronauts alive once they are launched from on top of a missile - out into the hostile, cold, vacuum of space - is a thin sheet of metal casing and the software on the computers that run all the life support systems.
‘What if…’ is the mantra you live by.
Imagine if your job was to consider all the worst possible scenarios that could occur and prevent them from happening.
The, ‘It’ll never happen,’ philosophy of the condescending blue-blooded, peremptory white male overriding your requests for safety measures at every turn. Trying to fit in with the ‘boy’s club’ but always out of the loop.
This was Margaret Hamilton’s life.
Women’s equality has never been so palpable as it is today, and it is thanks to the remarkable strides taken by extraordinary women like Margaret Hamilton who stood up, and said bravely to the world, ‘I am here. This is what I can do.’
Margaret Hamilton was a pioneer in the field of Software Engineering. She even coined the term while fighting for recognition and respect for the value of her contribution to the Apollo projects.
/ What Made Margaret So Successful?
Margaret Hamilton has been a strong force in shaping Computer Science into what it is today.
Women have always been at the forefront of computer science. One hundred years ago the human computers in M.I.T. were all women. And women were chosen for these roles because of their accuracy, diligence, and speed at calculations.
It was Margaret’s tenacity and confidence in her abilities that made her stand out among the other employees at M.I.T. Gaining the respect and recognition from her co-workers has brought wider recognition to gender gaps in the industry, then and now.
She was not afraid of asking questions when she didn’t know something. Her bravery to ask questions not only enabled her to work better but it breached the gap between herself and her male colleagues.
An example of this is the ‘Auge kugel method.’ All the men would joke about this being the best method to find errors in the coding, and Margaret eventually had to confess that she did not know it. It turned out that ‘Auge kugel’ means ‘eyeballing’ in German.
Margaret’s philosophy was another factor to her success. Her approach to programming was to consider every possible way something could go wrong and build systems that could recover without fatal consequences. But this approach was not simply in programming but evident in the way she worked.
It was very much the counterbalance to the ‘space-cowboy’ race to the new ‘stellar-frontier’ that characterised the masculine discipline of the times. Margaret adopted her approach to see what was missing and then filled the gaps.
There are so many ways we could show Margaret’s achievements as a mathematician. Her contribution to STEM and Software Engineering is staggering and include: work on early climate modelling, SAGE and Apollo projects, and the creation of USL - Universal Systems Language still used today.
But Margaret has done so much more for women following in her footsteps. So finally here they are, the 3 defining ways that Margaret Hamilton advanced equality for women in STEM.
1/ Margaret as a Role Model
Not only has Margaret made giant leaps for womankind with regard to gender equality, but she has inspired women to step up and be recognised for the work they do. Margaret is both intellectually capable and has the courage to prove it. She never gave up, and even while a working single mother, she still made breakthroughs that protected the lives of astronauts.
She was a woman in a male-dominated field but that did not stop her. Her confidence in her skills, her value and her contribution did not waver, and those around her recognised that.
2/ Paved the Way For Women to Lead Teams
Not only was Margaret one of the first women in programming, but she was the first to lead a team of software engineers.
In an interview, Margaret recalls one of the bosses at NASA expressing his misgivings at the time saying, ‘He had no doubt I could do the job but was worried the men working in the group might rebel.’
It turned out that she had no problems leading, and the team accepted her based on her expertise.
3/ Championing Respect and Equal Pay
At a conference in Sweden, she was asked a question by one of the many women delegates in the software development industry: ‘What do think about the gender gap in STEM fields and how can we bring more gender equality.’
Margaret’s answer was simple: ‘Equal pay.’
/ The Future For Women in Software Engineering
Understanding the reasons why women choose STEM careers and why they abandon them is the key to true and lasting equality.
A comprehensive study by the Scientista Foundation cites that 52% of Female STEM workers are leaving due to Macho workplace culture issues, while others complained of being unable to find positions, poor working conditions, or the salaries being too low.
It is up to both employers and women who want to fulfil their ambitions to have open discussions about these issues.
Fear is a path to the dark side. Take a leaf out of Margaret Hamilton’s book.
Be brave. Stand up. Be proud to be a woman in STEM.