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Mary Lee Berners-Lee Was a Tech Pioneer

Dominique Adams


Mary Lee Berners-Lee and Conway Berners-Lee

Mathematician and computer programmer Mary Lee Berners-Lee broke 1950s gender stereotypes in computer science.

The grandmother of the web, an early campaigner for equal pay, a programmer on the world’s first commercial computer, teacher, astronomer and the first freelance software consultant are all mantels Mary Lee Berners-Lee took on.

When you think about women in computer programming history you probably think of Ada Lovelace, the first female coder, or maybe you think of Grace Hopper, who was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer. But you probably don’t think of Berner-Lee, who is certainly worth of ranking as one of Britain’s important female programmers.

Considered a pioneer in the field of computer science; she led an extraordinary life that paved the way for other women entering the predominantly male sphere of programming.

Her career choices challenged the accepted social norms of the 1950s – that a woman’s place was in the home. Two decades before the Equal Pay Act came into force she successfully campaigned for pay equality at Ferranti.

Early Life

Born in Birmingham, the daughter of two teachers who had met at a votes for women meeting, she was encouraged to pursue a university education and career.

While at Yardley grammar school she excelled in mathematics and obtained a parish scholarship to study maths at the University of Birmingham. It was at university she said she had a moment when she realised she wasn’t an engineer but a mathematician.

Her degree, which commenced during WWII, was interrupted by a two-year stint a Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern. After graduation, she joined the Commonwealth Observatory in Australia classifying stars.

Career at Ferranti

Once she returned to the UK she joined Ferranti, an electrical engineering firm, to train as a computer programmer. It was here she made her impact on computer science, she was a member of the programming team that produced the world’s first commercially available general purpose computer, the Ferranti Mark I.

While at Ferranti she wrote programs that could perform 40 simultaneous equations and a diagnostic program that could locate program errors. It was here that she took a stand and won equal pay for herself and co-workers.

Going Freelance

After marriage and the arrival of her first child, Berners-Lee set up her own home-based software consultancy, making her one of the world’s first freelance programmers.

“If somebody had a nice, neat little project, I could program at home and then go to a computer somewhere to test it. That was good fun.”

Hired by the Air Ministry, she was tasked to create a programme to track weather balloons. London Transport engaged her to use programming to solve the problem of bus bunching.

After 16 years of working from home, encouraged and supported by her family, she returned to work first as a mathematics teacher and then as a programming project manager.

Grandmother of the web

Berners-Lee’s eldest child, Sir Tim Berners Lee the creator of the world-wide web, has said that it was his parents’ shared passion for programming and mathematics that set him on his path into computer science.

You could argue that without her and husband Conway’s influence there would be no world wide web.

Berners-Lee passed away 29 November 2017 aged 93, she is survived by her husband Conway and four children Tim, Peter, Helen and Michael, seven grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.

Need for more female tech role models

ISACA, formerly known as  Information Systems Audit and Control Association, reported that women hold only one in four technology jobs. Women say that the two biggest barriers they face in the technology workplace is lack of mentors and female role models.

Only 20% of women believe that their employers are very committed to hiring and advancing women in tech roles.

Although women are paid higher salaries than women in other fields the gender pay gap still exists. Women tend to earn between 18 to 22% less than their male counter-parts.

Scottish women in tech

According to the Scottish government, many tech companies struggle to recruit women, so much so, they have turned to non-traditional recruitment routes.

John Swinney, Deputy First ­Minister said of women in STEM, “We are committed to tackling that imbalance and to challenging the gender stereotypes which contribute to it.”

Claire Gillespie, key sector manager for Digital Skills at Skills Development Scotland said, “Like much of the UK, Scotland is suffering from a gender imbalance within its digital technology sector. Our recent research shows that currently women make up just 18% of our digital workforce, which is just not enough.

Gillespie said of Scottish initiatives to tackle the problem, “While it is still early days, we are seeing momentum build across Scotland, with the Government, public sector organisations, industry and educators working together to tackle the gender gap head on.”












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Dominique Adams

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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