WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Arlene Gwendolyn Lee

Posted January 13, 2020 4:30 PM by lmno24

About 60 years ago, Arlene Gwendolyn Lee “Gwen” was graduating from Allenby Junior Public School in Toronto. Upon graduation, she was given notice to continue her studies at a trade-type school across town. Her parents were furious and went to the school demanding to know why she wasn’t selected to attend the academic college-preparation academy nearby. The principal said the decision was made and noted that it might be wise for her to learn a trade before she started a family.

This anecdote of her early years comes from a blog post penned by her son, Reginald Braithwaite.

A few days later, she, her father and her two uncles returned to the school. The men shared their anger with the situation and the principal went back on the decision.

She attended North Toronto Collegiate where she learned, thrived and discovered her passion for music. She graduated and went on to attend the University of Toronto.

In her free time, she attended dances. One day, she met a man named Charles and they quickly fell in love. They hoped to rent an apartment in a nice neighborhood and live a happy life together. But because Charles was white and Gwen was black, at the time, renting a shared apartment was illegal.

They needed to buy a home to live together, but they needed to find well paying jobs to do so. Gwen saw a newspaper ad for Empire Life who hoped to hire young men for a career in data processing. The role required no previous experience and the interview was open to any men who showed up.

She went and the interviewers let her know she was in the wrong place and to go to another room for the keyboarding exam, Reginald Braithwaite wrote. She was determined to take the test though. She asked if she could and they reluctantly agreed. The questions were mostly logic based and she did extremely well. She placed in the 99th percentile and the interviewers were shocked.

In fact, they thought her responses were too good to be true and they wondered if she had cheated. They grilled her with questions, but after numerous correct answers, it became clear they’d be foolish to not give her a chance.

She became a programming analyst, the most senior position at the time. She led numerous computerization projects for the insurance and municipal fields, her son noted.

While she had a successful career, she noted that not all women can say the same.

“I had it easy,” she later told her son. “The computer didn’t care that I was a woman or that I was black. Most women had it much harder.”

She’s now retired and spends time running a small business selling books online, her son wrote.

Last year, the New York Times Magazine featured Gwen’s story, along with many other women in coding. We’ll feature them on this blog in the coming months.

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#1

Re: Woman of the Week – Arlene Gwendolyn Lee

01/14/2020 5:49 PM

Her action took real fortitude, especially back then (in the 50's?). I am very happy that she was successful.

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Re: Woman of the Week – Arlene Gwendolyn Lee

01/16/2020 11:06 AM

First off: Bravo for her parents for sticking up for her.

Secondly: "The men shared their anger with the situation and the principal". I wonder how that went. 3 PO"d adult males who weren't going to have the next generation mistreated as they were vs 1 prejudiced paper pusher. I thinking the words "forceful contention" would be the polite way to say it.

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Re: Woman of the Week – Arlene Gwendolyn Lee

01/17/2020 9:58 AM

"If we can see a long ways, it's because we stand on the shoulders of giants."

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