Lena Söderberg started out as simply another Playboy centerfold. The 21-12 months-vintage Swedish model left her local Stockholm for Chicago due to the fact, as she could later say, she’d been swept up in “America fever.” In November 1972, Playboy returned her enthusiasm with the aid of providing her underneath the name Lenna Sjööblom, in its signature spread. If Söderberg had accompanied the course of her predecessors, her picture could have been briefly well-known before amassing dust underneath the beds of teen boys. But that precise image of Lena would now not fade into obscurity. Instead, her face might turn out to be as famous and recognizable as Mona Lisa’s—as a minimum to each person reading computer technological know-how.
In engineering circles, a few references to Lena as “the first girl of the internet.” Others see her because the enterprise’s unique sin, step one in Silicon Valley’s exclusion of girls. Both views stem from an event that took place in 1973 at a University of Southern California pc lab, where a team of researchers changed into trying to turn bodily pictures into virtual bits. Their work might serve as a precursor to the JPEG, a widely used compression trendy that lets in big image files to be correctly transferred among devices. The USC group wished to test their algorithms on suitable pictures, and their look for the proper take a look at photograph led them to Lena.
According to William Pratt, the lab’s co-founder, the institution chose Lena’s portrait from a duplicate of Playboy that a pupil had introduced into the lab. Pratt, now eighty, tells me he saw not anything out of the normal approximately having a smooth porn magazine in a university computer lab in 1973. “I said, ‘There are some quite nice-looking pix in there,’ ” he says. “And the grad college students picked the only that became within the centerfold.” Lena’s unfolding, which featured the version sporting boots, a boa, a feathered hat, and not anything else, changed into attractive from a technical perspective because the photo blanketed, in line with Pratt, “plenty of excessive-frequency detail that is hard to code.”
Over the path of numerous years, Pratt’s team accrued a library of virtual images; now not all of them, of a route, have been from Playboy. The facts set additionally blanketed pix of a brightly colored mandrill, a rainbow of bell peppers, and numerous images, all titled “Girl,” of fully clothed women. But the Lena image became the only that researchers most often used. Over the subsequent forty-five years, her face and naked shoulder would serve as a benchmark for the picture-processing fine for the groups working on Apple Inc.’s iPhone camera, Google Images, and pretty much every different tech product having anything to do with photographs. To these days, some engineers joke that if you want your picture compression algorithm to make the grade, it had better carry out well on Lena.
To male software program builders, the tale of Lena has typically been visible as a fun ancient footnote. To their woman friends, it’s simply alienating. “I take into account questioning, What are they laughing about?” remembers Deanna Needell, now an arithmetic professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. She first encountered Lena in a pc technological know-how magnificence in college and quickly discovered that the model in the original photo changed into in truth completely nude. “It made me comprehend, Oh, I am the simplest female. I am distinctive,” Needell says. “It made gender an problem for me in which it wasn’t before.”
Needell, like many other women (and some men), wondered using a Playboy centerfold, however, they had been frequently disregarded. In the mid-1990s, in response to requests from readers to prohibit Lena from the pages of a trade magazine, David Munson, the mag’s former editor, wrote an article encouraging engineers to do not forget the use of different pix but argued against an outright ban due to the fact that many engineers did now not locate the usage of Lena degrading. The former president of an imaging change group, Jeff Seideman, campaigned to maintain Lena in a stream, arguing that, some distance from being sexist, the photo memorialized one of the most crucial events in the history of electronic imaging. “When you operate a picture like that for see you later, it’s not someone anymore; it’s just pixels,” Seideman advised the Atlantic in 2016, unwittingly highlighting the sexism that Needell and different critics had attempted to point out.
“We didn’t even consider those matters at all while we had been doing this,” Pratt says. “It was no longer sexist.” After all, he maintains, nobody might have been offended due to the fact there had been no girls in the study room at the time. And thus began a half-century’s well worth of greenback-passing wherein powerful guys within the tech enterprise defended or neglected the exclusion of ladies on the grounds that they had been already excluded.
Today, in keeping with a current examine posted by way of Axios, even famously sexist Wall Street employs a higher percentage of ladies than tech. In each industry, only 1 / 4 of management roles are occupied by ladies, however, on the top banks, 1/2 of all personnel are ladies, in comparison with a third at large tech companies. Women-led startups get hold of an insignificant 2 percent of investment from task capitalists, which isn’t much of a marvel considering that most effective 7 percentage of VCs are ladies. At a time whilst a degree in pc technological know-how guarantees a six-figure process provides to any younger individual with a modest intellect and a willingness to stay inside the Bay Area, ladies earn simply 17.5 percentage of bachelor’s degrees in pc technology. That percent has remained flat for a decade.
Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by using Emily Chang (Portfolio).
I’ve spent the last eight years covering Silicon Valley, most lately because of the anchor of Bloomberg Technology. During that time, gender disparities have constantly hung inside the historical past, gift but regularly unacknowledged. Off-camera, visitors could occasionally whinge about a Silicon Ceiling—a feel that ladies’ possibilities inside the tech global are seriously confined—however, they hardly ever desired to talk about the problem at the file. And so, two years ago, I set out to analyze the problem and, more important, try and recognize what the enterprise can do about it. The tragedy, as I argue in my e-book, Brotopia, is it didn’t must be this way. The exclusion of ladies from the era wasn’t inevitable. The industry, it seems, sabotaged itself and its personal pipeline of lady talent.
In tech’s earliest days, programmers seemed plenty exclusive from the geeky men we now imagine while we imagine tech people. In truth, they gave the impression of ladies. One pioneer turned into Grace Hopper, a mathematics Ph.D. And rear admiral within the U.S. Navy, who become one of the first humans to software the Mark I, a massive Harvard University laptop utilized by scientists to version the results of atomic bombs. After the warfare, Hopper invented a now-ubiquitous programmer’s tool called a compiler, which creates a manner for translating supply code right into a language machines can recognize.