"None of us created these problems — general discrimination and unconscious bias — we didn't create them, but as they come to our consciousness, we have to fix them," Smith said a Washington conference Wednesday. "The industry is at that moment where we're starting to wake up."
In the 1980s, the share of women in computer science plummeted, Smith added. Now the United States is struggling to make up the shortfall as other nations, such as Vietnam and China, have begun teaching all young children — regardless of gender — to code. In some respects, they have a second-mover advantage over the United States, where for much of the latter 20th century, computer science was dominated by males, she said.
"We culturally decided, as the personal computer came in, that it was for the boys," Smith added.
That's actually a departure from the first part of the 20th century, when many of the earliest computers were not only human (e.g., "a person who computes"), but were women with degrees in math working to break codes or do scientific research during World War II.
While Smith herself got a taste of that growing up, she wants to see far more young women being exposed to science and technology.
"I was lucky that science fair was mandatory in my high school in inner-city Buffalo," said Smith.