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Fierce Warriors: How to inspire our daughters to pursue remarkable careers in science and technology

Updated: May 27, 2019

The story of a few technology heroines you’ve probably never heard of, but should know about


by Niloofar Razi Howe


Many of us are guilty of inspiring our children to pursue the quixotic quest of athletic immortality rather than exalting the virtues of math and science in our everyday lives.  Even my mathematically inclined son told me that he would like to be an NBA player but only if he doesn’t make it into the NFL.  Well at least he’s learned the importance of having a back-up plan. Dean Kamen often speaks about the importance of glorifying science and math superstars to our children: to help ensure they do something extraordinary with their lives, like tackling world hunger or the global problem of clean water, or cyber security … through technology. Compared to a dunk, or touchdown, that’s a real cause for celebration.


Granted it’s a little easier to talk about Joe Montana’s game winning pass to Dwight Clark or Michael Phelps’ however many gold medals or the US Hockey Team’s 1980 win over the Soviet Union (I will never tire of watching reruns of that game) at the dinner table than the genome project or polymerase chain reaction, or the importance of 802.16.  But our job as parents isn’t to take the easy way out, now is it?


The problem of inspiring children to pursue a career in science and technology is clearly compounded when it comes to girls, and even worse in my field — security.  Women, by and large, aren’t systematically urged towards the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) disciplines.


There is no shortage of concern around the gender gap in STEM careers – it’s not just a social problem, but an economic and, yes, security problem (this leads to a much longer discussion around the importance of training and retaining technologists as a path to economic stability). And it should not be confused with the issue of getting more women into the C-Suite.  To be clear, the discussion with my daughter is not going to be about the C-Suite. It’s going to be about how she can lead an inspired life and aim to change the world, perhaps (hopefully?) through technology.  This path does not necessarily require a C-suite job. In fact, all of the women I highlight below contributed to science and technology in the context of service to their country.


One of the largest distraction from gender equality in the STEM fields, as ridiculous as it seems, is the question of whether women have the same “innate ability” to succeed at math and science. I find this discussion patently absurd. Take Judit Polgar who attained the title of Grandmaster in chess at age of 15, beating the previous record set by Bobby Fischer by one month. Her father, Lazslo Polgar, believed that any healthy child can be raised to be a genius, and to prove the point, raised all 3 of his daughters to be chess grandmasters.  Polgar, uninterested in beating just women, won the boys’ World Youth Chess tournament twice, beat almost all of the world’s top chess players, including Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Topalov and Anand, and now only competes against men, including playing four times on the Hungarian Men’s Chess team in the Olympics. Women have what it takes. They just need some nurture to get there – not unlike the kind that boys get constantly, whether we’re aware of it or not.


And to that end, I’m going to follow Dean Kamen’s dictum and apply it to the problem of too few women in science and mathematics: maybe part of the reason there’s a gender gap is too few of us realize how many amazingly cool women have created lasting legacies as technologists. Yes, women have solved some of our hardest problems and absolutely can serve as inspiring role models for our daughters.  There are a plethora of women we should put on pedestals and exalt with exuberance to our young daughters in the hope of getting them to follow in their amazing footsteps.


So here’s your dinner conversation cheat sheet —my list of the most interesting women in security you’ve probably never heard of, and how you should talk about them over dinner to inspire your daughters in a way that has been neglected for far too long:


Ada Lovelace: Dubbed the “Enchantress of Numbers”, and a charming presence at the royal court, where she was something of a dancing machine, Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, was Lord Byron’s daughter (“She walks in Beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/ And all that’s best of dark and bright/ Meet in her aspect and her eyes”). She was also the world’s first computer programmer.


Believing Lord Byron to be insane and wanting to spare her daughter a similar fate, Ada’s mother decided to cultivate Ada’s mind by immersing her in the study of mathematics using a very high brow cadre of tutors, including Augustus de Morgan (mathematical induction, De Morgan’s law and mathematical logician) and Mary Somerville (first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society). In translating a lecture given by Charles Babbage on his analytic engine (otherwise known as the first computer), Ada made a series of notes (longer than the text of the lecture itself) which included a computational algorithm meant to run on this analytic engine. This algorithm, widely hailed as the first computer program, would have worked, if only Babbage’s computer had worked (note Babbage, a man, never finished a project and Ada, a woman, anticipated his engine and wrote a program that would have worked had he ever completed his work. Sound familiar?).


This beautiful countess has a day, a medal, a competition and most notably, a Department of Defense language named after her.  Ada, the computer language, is a high-level programming language used for mission-critical applications in defense and commercial markets where there is low tolerance for bugs.  And herein lies the admittedly tenuous connection to security– Despite being a cumbersome language in some ways, “Ada churns out less buggy code”  … and buggy code, remains an Achilles’ heel of security in the cyber age.


Hedy Lamarr:A contract star during MGM’s Golden Age, Hedy Lamarr was “the most beautiful woman in films,” an actress, dancer, singer and dazzling goddess. She was also  joint owner of US Patent 2,292, 387, a secret communication system (frequency hopping) that serves as the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology, secure military communications and mobile phone technology (CDMA). Hedy’s interest and exposure to technology likely came by an unfortunate marriage to an arms manufacturer who stopped her from pursuing her acting career and instead took her to his meetings, where she was exposed to military technology, including control systems. While the marriage did not last (putting it lightly), her exposure to military control systems likely led to the idea of frequency hopping, which was developed for the US Navy to protect radio-controlled torpedoes from detection or jamming during World War II. Her co-inventor and neighbor, George Antheil, one of the foremost avant-garde composers of his time, proposed that rapid changes in radio frequencies (Hedy’s idea) could be coordinated the way he had coordinated sixteen synchronized player pianos in his work, Ballet Méanique.And so a beautiful (and intelligent) actress and a visionary composer came up with the idea that forms the basis for modern communication systems.  While the technology did not exist at the time to put Lamarr’s idea into practice, many subsequent patents in frequency-changing, have referred to this patent as the basis for anti-jamming devices, especially in defense communication systems.  Famous for her quote, “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” Hedy Lamarr’s legacy is that of a stunningly beautiful woman who refused to stand still. Thankfully, her refusal to accept society’s chosen role for her resulted in a very significant contribution to secure mobile communications.


Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: Also known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace, Grandma COBOL, and Admiral of the Cyber Sea, say hello to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a “feisty old salt who gave off an aura of power.”  She was a pioneer in information technology and computing before anyone knew what that meant.  Forced into retirement from the US Navy as the oldest commissioned officer (79) after a 43 year career that began at the age of 36 when, despite being too old and too skinny by Department of Defense standards, she battled her way in. She ultimately earned not only the rank of Rear Admiral, but also the Defense Distinguished Service Award,, the highest non-combat award at the Pentagon. Embracing the unconventional, Admiral Grace believed the most damaging phrase in the English language is “We’ve always done it this way”, and to bring the point home, the clock in her office ran counterclockwise.


Grace Hopper invented the first machine independent computer language and discovered the first computer “bug” … literally. Hopper began her career in the Navy as the first programmer of the Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. The Mark I was a five ton, fifty foot long, glass-encased behemoth — a scientific miracle at the time, made of vacuum tubes, relays, rotating shafts and clutches with a memory for 72 numbers and the ability to perform 23-digit multiplication in four seconds. It contained over 750,000 components and was described as sounding like a “roomful of ladies knitting.” As computers evolved, so did Hopper and her work continued on the Mark II and Mark III computers as well as the Universal Automatic Computer, which operated a thousand times faster than the Mark I. Unable to balance a checkbook (as she jokingly explained later), Hopper changed the computer industry by developing COBOL (common-business-oriented language), which made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers. She believed that computers should respond to a written language rather than machine code, which meant programmers no longer had to learn a manufacturer’s proprietary machine language.  COBOL uniquely ran on different brands of computers.  Even 50 years later, COBOL remains important today, powering most of the world’s businesses and applications. Every time you use an ATM, why not thank Grandma COBOL?


Admiral Hopper is also credited with coining the term “bug” when she traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay. The bug was carefully removed and taped to a daily log book- hence the term “computer bug” was born.


Despite her prodigious accomplishments, Grace Hopper’s childhood is the perfect retort to Amy Chua and the Tiger-mom movement.  While “Amazing Grace” graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College, received an MA in mathematics and Physics from Yale as well as a PhD in Mathematics just three years later, also from Yale, taught mathematics at Vassar and had one of the most distinguished careers in the military, she spent her childhood summers at her family lakeside house playing kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and cops-and-robbers with her cousins. Grace’s innate curiosity (she had a knack for taking apart gadgets as a young girl) and her father’s belief that girls should have the same educational opportunity as boys and his insistence that she go after what she wanted (that is true nurture!), inspired her to push the limits.


The next woman is really a group of women, all remarkable. Women who helped save the world with the work they did in cryptology/cryptanalysis during World War I and World War II.  I will only highlight a few, but they are but emblematic of many.


We remember “They served in silence.” Their creed applies to the thousands of largely unsung heroines and heroes who served the greater good during the world wars. They were the cryptologists, analysts and mathematicians who used their minds to keep our country and the world safe.


Agnes Meyer Driscoll, born in 1889, the “first lady of cryptology” studied mathematics and physics in college, when it was very atypical for a woman to do so – it’s still not typical, of course, and this was more than a century ago!  Like many women, she enlisted in the U.S. military after the outbreak of World War, as a cryptanalyst, and remained a code breaker during her 30-year career in the military.  Miss Aggie, as she was known, was responsible for breaking a multitude of Japanese naval manual codes (the Red Book Code of the ‘20s, the Blue Book Code of the ‘30s, and the JN-25 Naval codes in the ‘40s) as well as a developer of early machine systems, such as the CM cipher machine.


Elizebeth Friedman, another cryptanalyst pioneer, with minimal mathematical training, was able to decipher coded messages regardless of the language or complexity. During her career, she deciphered messages from ships at sea (during the Prohibition era, she deciphered over 12,000 rum-runner messages in a three-year period) to Chinese drug smugglers. An impatient, opinionated Quaker with a disdain for stupidity, she spent the early part of her career working as a hairdresser, a seamstress, a fashion consultant and a high school principal. Her love of Shakespeare took her to Riverbank Laboratories, the only U.S. facility capable of exploiting and solving enciphered messages. There she worked on a project to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had authored Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets using a cipher that was supposed to have been contained within.  She eventually went to work for the US government where she deciphered innumerable coded messages for the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Customs, the Bureau of Narcotics the Bureau of Prohibition, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Department of Justice.


Genevieve Grotjan, another code breaker whose discovery, a correlation in a series of intercepted Japanese coded messages, in September 1940 changed the course of history and allowed the U.S. Navy to build a “Purple” analog machine to decode Japanese diplomatic messages. This allowed Allied forces to continue reading coded Japanese missives throughout World War II. Prior to her success, the Purple Code had proved so hard to break that William Friedman, the chief cryptologist at the US Army Signal Corps’ (and Elizebeth Friedman’s husband) suffered a breakdown trying to break it.


Despite accomplishments that make most of our lives look small in comparison, few were honored publicly.  There were no book deals, no tell-all tales, no self-aggrandizement.  What is most astounding is that there were so many of them. Thousands of women scientists, thinkers and calculators on both sides of the Atlantic helped ensure victory in both world wars.  Of course not all the women were cryptologists. Female warriors came in all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and personalities.


And let me disgress for a moment to share a remarkable story of a fierce female warrior who, while not a technologist, showed the grit and determination that characterizes all of the women in this narrative. Nancy Wake, also known as The White Mouse, was the No. 1 most wanted person by the Nazis in occupied France.  Wake was a stunningly beautiful glamour girl, who married a French industrialist and was living the high-life in the south of France until the breakout of World War II.  A key organizer of the Maquis, she once rode her bicycle over five hundred miles to distribute new codes. Her wireless operator had been forced to destroy existing codes in a Gestapo raid. She passed through several German checkpoints knowing there was a price on her head of five million francs!.  Henri Tardivat, one of her comrades in the resistance said, “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts.  Then she is like five men,” in describing Wake who was taught to kill with her bare hands (and she did just that).  She first met Tardivat tangled in a tree after being parachuted into Auvergne.  Tardivat tried to charm her by saying “I hope that all trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year,” to which she replied, “Don’t give me that French shit.”  Her strength and courage, in the face of incredible odds and against an enemy focused on capturing her, is a model for all of our girls.


Epilogue:   First, I hope I don’t come off denigrating men and their accomplishments in math and science. I have the same wish for greatness for my 2 boys as I do for my daughter. I worry though that the path to professional greatness is smoother for the boys, especially when the path goes through the math and science departments.


Second, these women are but a few. My initial list of technology heroines was long and hard to winnow. There are so many who have dedicated their lives and technical genius to service and solving some of our hardest problems and are doing so today. There is Maureen Baginski, a cryptologist who left the NSA to go to the FBI and fix the intelligence problem at the Bureau after 9/11.  There is Deborah Plunkett, who arguably holds the most important job in IT security as head of the NSA’s Information Assurance Directorate. As part of her position, Plunkett deals with the multi-flanked war of a government moving to COTS technology while dealing with cyber adversary with a razor sharp focus on infiltrating (for espionage and embarrassment) the networks that keep our country going.  There is Maryann Davidson, Oracle CISO, demanding that entrepreneurs come up with better solutions for our critical enterprises.  Becky Bace and Professor Dorothy Denning are teaching and working with the next generation of security vanguards. There are visionary entrepreneurs like Val Rahmani of Damballa, Stephanie Fohn of Whitehat Security, Sandy Lerner who co-founded CISCO and and Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot, who are working tirelessly and brilliantly to deliver the solutions necessary to keep the world, and the people in it,  safe. All of these women, and many more, deserve to be on a list of Fierce Warriors in Security.


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