In this new entry Women in Technology we are going to talk about Jean Jennings Bartik and her professional career as another example of the gender gap that has existed in the field of technology for decades. To do so, we will go back to the presentation of the ENIAC, considered the first fully electronic digital computer. The use for which it had been manufactured was to calculate missile trajectories. During its presentation, all the media focused on the machine and the men who built it. However, the team of women who programmed this computer was not even presented to the media. One of those women was Jean Jenning Bartik.
Who was Jean Jennings Bartik?
This programmer was born on December 27, 1924 in rural Missouri. She was the sixth of seven children in a farming family. In addition, her father was also a school teacher. Jean trained to be a math teacher at Northwest Missouri State Teachers.
One day, one of her professors showed her a published advertisement from the University of Pennsylvania. It was an offer to participate in a project with the Army: they were recruiting mathematics graduates. Jean Jennings Bartik did not hesitate and applied. Thus, she became part of the Eniac group of women, wartime recruits with a mathematical background. This computer was designed to calculate missile trajectories for use in World War II, but the conflict ended before it could be used. Despite this, the ENIAC is a before and after in the world of computing.
The work performed by the mathematicians who programmed the ENIAC was at first described by their colleagues as “plugging in wires to configure the machine”. But that was not what it was. These women were the first to program. The first to turn mathematical analysis into a process that made sense so that the computation could flow through the electronic circuits to completion. Women like Jean Jennings Bartik or her partner Betty Snyder Holberton faced the challenge of walking into new territory that had not been visited before.
Later, Jean Jennings joined the ENIAC designers in the development of the first commercially available computer, which was introduced in 1951. This computer, the UNIVAC was introduced the same year in which the mathematician stopped working to take care of her three children despite her brilliant career and did not return until 1967.
The gender gap and ageism
Jean Jennings Bartik suffered the consequences of the gender gap and ageism the hard way. After working in various programming and training positions, she was an editor at Auerbach Publications, a pioneering publisher of materials related to ICT development. In 1981, she left Auerbach to join Data Decisions. However, after all this brilliant career, in 1985, when she was approaching 61 years of age, she was laid off and could not find another job in the industry. Therefore, she had to leave her career and become a real estate agent in New Jersey until her retirement more than two decades later.
Being the longest-lived of the mathematicians who programmed the ENIAC, Jean Jennings was able to enjoy some recognitions that were too long in coming: in 1997, together with her five fellow ENIAC programmers, she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. In 2008, she was one of the recipients of the Computer History Museum Award, along with Robert Metcalfe and Linus Torvalds. In 2009, Bartik received the Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society. He passed away just two years later.