Google’s Megan Smith Says It’s Time To Uncover The “Lost History” Of Female Tech Pioneers

Google vice president Megan Smith gave a wide-ranging talk this morning at the Women 2.0 conference in Las Vegas in which she discussed “moonshot” ideas and connected them to the work she’s doing at Google’s “skunkworks” lab Google[x]. She also suggested that we’re entering a third wave” of women’s rights.

Third-wave feminism isn’t a new concept, but it sounded like Smith is thinking about something more recent — this year, she said, feels like “the beginning of the third wave to me.” She suggested that there’s more discussion about the role of women and girls, whether it’s a conversation at the United Nations about developing countries or (as in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which Smith cited as an example) a discussion about getting more women involved in senior roles at major companies.

One of the keys to improving things, Smith suggested, is “visibility” — not just for women now, but also those in the past. She pointed to a new exhibition on female pioneers in science quoting The New York Times description: “Some of the women are famous, many not.”

“There’s been a lost history,” Smith said.

She offered her own overview of some of those pioneers, including Grace Hopper (who was instrumental in the development of the COBOL programming language), Ada Lovelace (whose early work in computer science is supposed to be featured in Walter Isaacson’s next book), and Katherine Johnson (who calculated the trajectory for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and other important space flights).

Smith added that it’s “astonishing” that most of the people in the room don’t know about Johnson: “All of us need to know that there was an African American woman in the elite levels of that team.”

In fact, Smith said Google has been trying to highlight some of that history in the Google Doodles on its front page — for example this Doodle of Ada Lovelace.

Other Google efforts are more oriented towards addressing these issues in present day, such as making sure women are represented among the speakers at Google I/O and other conferences and providing bias training for those events. (Smith outlined some of Google’s other initiatives in this column on the Huffington Post.)

The talk wasn’t just about women in tech. She offered some criteria for big, “moonshot” ideas (they need to tackle a big problem, require a breakthrough in technology, and offer a radical solution) and outlined some of the ones Google[x] is working on, such as Google’s self-driving cars and its “ballon-powered” Internet initiative Project Loon.

One of the tenets at Google[x], she said, is to offer two-thirds “yes and” feedback and one-third “yes but” feedback; in other words, people aren’t supposed to say no, and they’re not supposed to go overboard with their criticism. Another is to move quickly. Apparently the first prototype of Google Glass was built in about 1.5 hours. Yet another is bringing together diverse minds, meaning that she wants Google to be “the best company for women and minorities” not to mention “gays, lesbians, different races, different walks of life.”

[image of Smith speaking in 2008 via Flickr/David Sifry]