When I was first old enough to realize my mother had a job, she was employed at JPL, processing images returned by the space program. Later she worked for a think tank coding complex simulations of geopolitical conflicts; then for a major aerospace firm, where she rose to the highest rank available to technical employees. In our household, it was my mother who talked at the dinner table about ARPANET and modems, about version control problems and root passwords getting into the wrong hands. It was my mother who taught me my first lessons in science, who set up the telescope on camping trips, who explained why candles burned or how to view an eclipse, who gave me graph paper and taught me how to plot a function when she thought math class wasn’t challenging me enough. I first heard of the world wide web from her, when it was still more of an idea than anything else.
When I was a kid, I had dolls and books and art supplies, and a play stove that Mom made (at my request) out of cardboard boxes and contact paper. But I also had a train set and blocks, a building toy with gears and motors, an electronics kit, a microscope, a fossil and mineral collection, plastic boxes for collecting bugs, a computer and training books about how to program it… No one in my family ever suggested that some of those things were somehow less appropriate toys for a girl than others.
It is, I think, because of my mother that I start out startled (before moving on to irritated) when I read some sexist joke about women and programming, or when I meet someone who assumes I must be frightened by math and code when they know nothing about me but my gender. I know that my mother had to deal with a lot more of this than I ever have — with overt and unembarrassed prejudice, with blatant decisions to underpay the women on her team.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but I have my mother to thank for the fact I find those assumptions so alien: the first programmer I knew was a woman.