Updated: Oct 2
By Clare Schinzel
With the significant inequalities that persist between men and women, many young girls are discouraged from the STEM world: science, math, and the many careers that encompass them are labeled as “too difficult” by the school system before many young women can even give them a chance. As a result, walking into a computer science degree program as a woman can be a completely isolating experience. Luckily for all of the women around the world, breaking through that glass ceiling isn’t impossible. Many women have forged the way forward, and through her exceptional work in the military and computer science programs, Grace Hopper remains an iconic figure girls can look to for encouragement in this gender-divided world.
Grace Hopper was born in 1906 in New York City where she spent her childhood assembling and disassembling household objects. Following her passion for STEM, she spent her twenties getting a mathematics degree from Vassar University. After graduation, she began teaching at Vassar while simultaneously working on her doctorate at Yale. By 1934, she received her Ph.D. in mathematics, making her one of the first women to accomplish this.
Besides her dedication to mathematics, Hopper also paved the way for women in the military. Putting a pause on teaching, Hopper joined the Naval Reserve in 1943 where she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation Project at Harvard. There, she researched how to program a Mark I computer––an early version of the electronic computer. Hopper honed her knowledge by writing the 500-page Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. Her work meticulously outlined how to operate the massive machine, which massively aided the war effort. Adding to her intellectual prestige, Hopper was the one to label computer malfunctions “bugs,” a term that is now commonplace in modern-day computer language.
By the end of the war, Hopper had become a research partner at Harvard and joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation to continue her work with computer technology. During her tenure there, she participated in the coding of UNIVAC, the first completely electronic digital computer. Additionally, she helped invent the first computer compiler––a code that translates written instructions into a language the computer can read. Her excellence in coding allowed her to develop COBOL, one of the first standardized computer languages. Remarkably, even amongst these substantial achievements, Hopper didn’t abandon teaching, giving up to 300 lectures per year to aspiring computer and mathematics students.
By 1966, Hopper had reached the rank of Commander and was called back to action to be the Chief of Naval Operations Staff as Director of the Navy Programming Languages Group. Promoted to Admiral in 1985, she was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal––the highest award given to soldiers who didn’t participate in direct combat. Her accomplishments were even recognized internationally as a fellow of the British Computer Society––the first and only woman to be invited. Eager to pass on her knowledge, Hopper taught until she died in 1992 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom 25 years later.
Hopper remains an icon for all STEM and military-focused women in our world. Her work to develop the computers we use every day should be remembered, and her love for teaching the next generation proved her dedication to all things STEM. In a gender-divided world, remembering Grace Hopper’s contributions should be the encouragement any woman needs to walk into her male-dominated computer science class with confidence, knowing that someday she may be the one to break down that barrier for the next talented generation of young women.
Norwood, Arlisha. “Grace Hopper.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017,
Yale University. “Biography of Grace Murray Hopper | Office of the President.” Yale.edu,