“Computers Wore Skirts” African American Women in Tech

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The HistoryMakers

Although not well known historically, African American women have played important roles in the tech industry, sometimes even under not the best of circumstances. Aerospace engineer Christine Darden, who served as Director of the Aerospace Performing Center Program Office at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the early 2000s, recalled when NASA first “started hiring black females, they had… articles saying, ‘When computers wore skirts’ so they [the women] were actually called… ‘computers.’ …[There was] a group called the ‘West Computers,’ which were the black computers and that was a segregated unit at NASA… Dorothy Vaughan… was the head of the West Computers. The engineering section would come to Dorothy… they would either give her a piece of work to be done or they would ask to borrow one of the computers in the office to come and work with them if they needed extra support for their work… Katherine [G. Johnson] was loaned out to the flight dynamics engineering section… and they kept her there.”[1]

Dorothy Vaughan, NASA
Dorothy Vaughan in front of an IBM Experimental Text Control computer at NASA, c. 1960s

In her interview for The HistoryMakers, computer scientist Katherine G. Johnson, featured in the groundbreaking movie Hidden Figures,explained: “We did all the hand work on a desk calculator… the big hand calculators, 12 digits down and 12 across… we had a whole department devoted to that… when we started the Orbits [around the Earth], we did that by hand… when Glenn [John Glenn, the first person to orbit the Earth in 1962] was going up, he called over at the office and said, ‘tell her the calculators, that if she gets the same thing they’ve got, then I’ll use their data.’ …we didn’t have that confidence in calculators early, and he [Glenn] especially… he would take my hand calculations first.”[2]

Katherine G. Johnson, NASA
Katherine G. Johnson with an adding machine and a ‘celestial training device’ while working for NASA, 1962

Christine Darden, who earned her M.S. in in applied mathematics from Virginia State College in 1967 explained the complexity and time-consuming nature of early mainframe computers: “So I come up with a computer code that you put in a shape of a particle that goes through these equations to calculate what the scattering would look like… it would take hours for this thing to do this… I would have to go over there about nine [o’clock] or ten o’clock at night by myself and bring up the machine and start this code and every hour or so it would punch out one card with one answer on it… This is just when computers were coming out… this was an IBM… You would stay there… [until] 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning by yourself trying to get these numbers.”[3]

Christine Darden in NASA’s Langley Research Center Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 1975
Christine Darden in NASA’s Langley Research Center Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, 1975

University president and physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, the first woman to receive her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1973, took advantage of the down time while waiting for the computer to provide results during her summer job at Martin Marietta Corporation: “When the printouts came back that had the results of the computations that the scientists and engineers were doing, my job was to match up the decks of cards with the printouts… and put ’em on shelves… [And] all the time I kept asking, well, why can’t I do some of this work? …so I’m being a good sport… I had a lot of free time on my hands. And so… I would bring a math book, and I’d just sit and do math problems… So I had this supervisor, and he would come around and say, ‘Why are you… spending this time just reading here?’ And I said, I’m waiting for the cards to be delivered… he would always… harangue me about reading. Now, I’m not reading ‘True Romance.’ I’m reading… ‘Differential Equations’ or a Physics book.”[4]

Shirley Ann Jackson, c. 1970s (left); Jackson as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2019 (right)
Shirley Ann Jackson, c. 1970s (left); Jackson as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2019 (right)

Joan Langdon, the founding Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bowie State University, also spoke of these early days: “Hampton [University] did not offer computer science as a major while I was there. We had one course… for the entire institution… We did not have a compiler or an interpreter. So our work had to be sent to The College of William and Mary. William and Mary would process it and send it back… So, literally, if you wrote a program, you might get feedback from that program a day later, two days later, you fixed the mistakes, you sent it back.”[5][6]

Joan Langdon (second from right) as program director with graduate interns of the Bowie State University Summer Institute in Engineering and Computer Applications, 1998
Joan Langdon (second from right) as program director with graduate interns of the Bowie State University Summer Institute in Engineering and Computer Applications, 1998

Linda Hayden, associate dean of the Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, remembered similar situations at ECSU: “I was teaching mathematics [at ECSU], because there was no computer science course at that time. Eventually, ECSU was approved by the state… to give a degree in computer science… but they didn’t give any resources, as such. No computers, no faculty, none of that came with it… So, Dr. Jenkins, who was the chancellor at that time, asked me if I would go back and get a graduate degree in computer science, because they needed someone with a degree in that area… so he… gave me a sabbatical… to go and get the master’s in computer science… at Old Dominion University… there weren’t many African-Americans at all. It was just me, as a matter of fact.”[7] Computer scientist Andrea Lawrence, the first African American to earn her Ph.D. degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology, similarly described going through Georgia Tech’s program in the early 1990s as one of few African American women: “At Georgia Tech,, the percentage of women in the [computer science] PhD program was very small… it was difficult because many times, you would be in a class, and there wouldn’t be any other women. And some of the men might not want you to be in their group… whether that was because I was as old as their mothers or because I was African American or because I was a woman, it was hard to say.”[8]

Linda Hayden (left) and Andrea Lawrence (right)
Linda Hayden (left) and Andrea Lawrence (right)

Robotics engineer Ayanna Howard described how much the environment had changed by the 1990s when she founded Georgia Tech’ Human Automation Systems Laboratory at Georgia Technical Institute and yet how her work stood on the shoulders of those who had come before: “As our computers get faster and our memory size gets larger, we’re gonna be able to do more intelligent things just because the hardware exists. In fact, some of the technology that we’re coming up with on a robotics platform… some of the theories existed ten years ago, but they just couldn’t make it happen. You know, it’s like here’s the theory, here’s the mathematical equations, but we can’t program it because it doesn’t work. But we’re now getting to the point where we’re starting to be able to convert some of those theories that have existed for a while and making them a reality because… the hardware exists. We can compute these very difficult mathematical equations, we can compute them in… millisecond time.”[9]

Ayanna Howard
Ayanna Howard

Aeronautical engineer Wanda Austin recalled her early days at The Aerospace Corporation before her extraordinary climb to being its president and CEO—a role she held for eight years: “I started in IPD [Information Processing Division], I left what was then ETG, part of the Engineering and Technology Group Program… And the exciting part of this is you get to see the application of the engineering discipline that you may have been working in. So in this case it was the Defense Dissemination Program… And part of my job was to be responsible for the upgrades of the software to those ground stations, and to get to go out and see… airmen who were depending on these systems to work in order to get their jobs done. And I tell you, I would have continued to work without a paycheck after having that experience because there are not very many people that can say… I did something today that really made a difference to our national security.”[10]

Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation (left); Ursula Burns, president and CEO of Xerox Corporation (right)
Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation (left); Ursula Burns, president and CEO of Xerox Corporation (right)

Ursula Burns’ historic role as the first African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company began as a mechanical engineering intern in 1980. In her HistoryMakers interview, she stated: “There’re three things that I could be discriminated by or for. One was gender, obviously. The other one was race, very obviously, and the third was age… I was the lonely one because I was younger than most people… when I was doing some of these roles… [But] at the end of the day I kind of am who I am, and if there’re two things that I can’t change, and even if I could, I probably wouldn’t. One is being a woman and the second is being black. Those two things I kind of like. I think they’re pretty cool”[11]

Much has changed since days past including the increasing leadership roles of black women in tech. Corporate executive Dorothy Terrell, looked back on her career at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC): “I got this call… ‘Do you wanna be a plant manager,’ and so I laughed I mean… like a belly laugh… ’cause I’m thinking… there were no plant managers in Digital, that didn’t come from materials or from engineering… He says, ‘Tell you what, why don’t you wait to see what the requirements are, and then you decide…’ Then the core requirements come out and I see they played more to my strengths. This was a learning to not automatically assume that I can’t do something just because of others who had done it… and I went after that job with a vengeance, because it was located in the inner city. That’s where I had come from… it, for me, was a chance to give back… and to have a platform to do it. And I competed with an engineering manager for this job… And I got the job.”[12] On the shoulders of women like Burns, Austin, and Terrell, others have made their way up the corporate ladder in the tech industry, including Lisa Jackson, Apple’s Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives; Shellye Archambeau, board member of Verizon and former CEO of MetricStream; and Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of TaskRabbit and board member at HP, to name a few.

Dorothy Terrell, Lisa Jackson, Shellye Archambeau, and Stacy Brown-Philpot
Left to right- Dorothy Terrell, Lisa Jackson, Shellye Archambeau, and Stacy Brown-Philpot

As magazine publisher Tanya-Monique Kersey emphasized: “Technology is… the wave of the future. You have to use the tools to… [Be] a visionary and to be ahead of the learning.”[13]

Dorothy Height, HistoryMakers, National Council of Negro Women[1] Christine Darden (The HistoryMakers A2013.045), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 26, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 1, Christine Darden talks about NASA’s “West Computers,” and segregation at NASA in the 1960s.

[2] Katherine G. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2012.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 6, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Katherine Johnson describes her experience as a black woman at NASA.

[3] Christine Darden (The HistoryMakers A2013.045), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 26, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Christine Darden describes her master’s thesis on calculating light scattering, and her early experience using computers.

[4] Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 22, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, Shirley Ann Jackson talks about her summer job at Martin Marietta Corporation, part 1.

[5] Joan Langdon (The HistoryMakers A2013.160), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 22, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Joan Langdon talks about her experience of taking a computer science class at Hampton University.

[6] Joan Langdon (The HistoryMakers A2013.160), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 22, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 10, Joan Langdon talks about the evolution of computer science in the 1980s and later.

[7] Linda Hayden (The HistoryMakers A2013.044), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 25, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Linda Hayden talks about her decision to pursue an M.S. degree in computer science.

[8] Andrea Lawrence (The HistoryMakers A2012.071), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 19, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Andrea Lawrence discusses her difficulties she fared as a woman attending Georgia Institute of Technology.

[9] Ayanna Howard (The HistoryMakers A2011.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 15, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 3, Ayanna Howard talks about prospects for robotics in the future.

[10] Wanda Austin (The HistoryMakers A2011.035), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 25, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Wanda Austin discusses her career path at Aerospace Corporation.

[11] Ursula Burns (The HistoryMakers A2013.289), interviewed by Gwen Ifill, April 13, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 17, Ursula Burns reflects upon the role of gender, race, and age in her career at Xerox.

[12] Dorothy Terrell (The HistoryMakers A2007.133), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 9, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 8, story 4, Dorothy Terrell remembers becoming plant manager at the Digital Equipment Corporation’s Boston plant.

[13] Tanya-Monique Kersey (The HistoryMakers A2007.198), interviewed by Ron Brewington, July 8, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Tanya-Monique Kersey talks about the importance of computer literacy.

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