Profiles in Women’s History: Mary Allen Wilkes

Posted by on Mar 17, 2021 in Top Stories

March is Women’s History Month–a great time to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of women. This week btw takes a closer look at the life and achievements of one remarkable woman: Mary Allen Wilkes.

Who Is She?

Mary Allen Wilkes is best known for helping to develop and write the system software for LINC. LINC was an early computing system created in the early 1960s. This established her a leader among women in the computer science field.  

What is LINC?

Short for Laboratory Instrument Computer, LINC led to the development of the world’s first personal computers. Before LINC, computing was done using large, off-line, remote computers that were centrally controlled. The creation of LINC and the work of Wilkes and the rest of her development team allowed computers to shrink in size and be controlled by their individual users.

Why Computer Programming?

Wilkes didn’t start out wanting to be a computer programmer..As a teenager in the 1950s, she didn’t even know what a computer was. At that time, she hoped to become a lawyer. She attended Wellesley College and graduated in 1959. But by then she had given up her legal ambitions. Many women who managed to successfully make it through law school at that time were given jobs as legal secretaries, law librarians, or other jobs deemed “appropriate” for women. Instead, the day she graduated, her parents drove her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she applied for–and received–a job as a computer programmer. Wilkes got the job due to her ability to think logically, and because it was a developing profession open to more people interested in creating the field of work. She became part of the LINC development team, writing software that would allow individual users to communicate directly with their personal computer. She also taught other LINC users, and co-authored its training manual. Wilkes is also known for being the first person in the world to have a personal computer in her home.

After working in the computer field for eleven years, Wilkes was accepted into Harvard Law School in 1972. After graduating, she worked as a lawyer for the next forty years.

Where Is She Now?

Wilkes is 83 years old and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although she’s retired, she still occasionally gives talks to computer science students.

Binary code,
Credit: Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Women in Computing–Then and Now

Women served as code breakers during World War II, and by 1960, more than one out of every four programmers were women. It was once believed that women were more adept at coding and better able to  complete intricate and logic-based tasks. Coding work was also not considered as prestigious as it is viewed today. Even so male coders received higher pay than their female colleagues.

In the 1980s, there was a decline in the number of women applying to computer science programs and jobs. Why? Because boys were more exposed to computers in schools than girls were, and parents began urging sons, rather than daughters, to enter the field. This reinforced the idea that computers were “for boys.”

Dig Deeper Use Internet resources to locate the following information: Today, what is the percentage of women enrolled in degree-granting computer science programs at U.S. universities? What is the percentage of women who currently work in the field of computer programming?