Waterloo Math’s ‘Hidden Figure’

How Marian Forster became one of the first female employees in Wes Graham’s computing group

“I decided to do mathematics out of defiance,” Marian Forster says, chuckling and leaning forward in her chair. “I pretty much got a message from society, my school, and my family that I was not very smart, and that I should take typing in Grade 10 and become a typist like my mother. And then that would be it.”

Forster (BSc ’64) was one of the first female math students at the University of Waterloo, and an essential part of Waterloo’s computing group following her graduation in the mid 1960s. However, unlike many of her male peers,  Forster’s contributions have largely been forgotten.

Black and white graduation portrait of young Marian Forster

Marian Forster's 1964 graduation photo

“I worked with Wes Graham for two-and-a-half years,” she says, “and I don’t have a single photo of my time there. I guess you can call me something of a ‘hidden figure.’”

Forster grew up in Brampton, Ontario, in an era when less than 10 per cent of women attended university. “Expectations for women were so different,” she says. “Even the guidance counsellor discouraged me from going to university. ‘Your highest marks are in math, but I don’t know what you’re going to do with it,’ he said.”

Without financial support from her family, she worked long hours in a variety of jobs every summer during university. “I was very fortunate,” she says, “because again and again I encountered both men and women in those offices who were so supportive of my desire to go to university.”

Overcoming barriers

Forster did the first year of her three-year degree at Western University, then transferred to the fledgling University of Waterloo in 1962 because tuition was much lower. There were only a handful of female students in the sciences, and no female professors. “The first time I walked across campus, a male student stopped me and said ‘Who are you? Where did you come from?’ That’s how few women there were back then! We really stood out.” Her male classmates, she says, would frequently accuse female students of flirting or having an unfair advantage if they asked professors for help.

“I liked math because the answers weren’t subjective,” she says. “When I got it right, they had to give me the marks.” Forster did find community on campus: she was a cartoonist for the yearbook and the student newspaper, and she took judo lessons for self-defence. She also had some professors who were supportive: chief among them, computing pioneer Wes Graham. 

Cartoon of lion and mouse in front of Waterloo crest

One of Forster's cartoons of King Warrior for the student newspaper, 1963

On May 22, 1964, forty people graduated with BSc degrees from Waterloo. Forster was one of nine women, or 22.5 per cent of the graduating class. Waterloo’s rate of female inclusion was higher than the national average of 15 per cent.

In 1964, there were zero female graduates in the ninety-five-person Engineering class, and only seven nationwide. “My first year, there was one young woman in Engineering,” Forster says. “They were so gross and awful back then, and they just tortured her. Eventually, she had a nervous breakdown and left the university. I have no idea what happened to her.”

Women in the workforce

Even with a math degree in hand, Forster struggled to find a job that matched her skill set. She had one job offer, as a key punch operator at Bell, but that only required a Grade 10 education. Potential employers told her that she’d be a worthless hire because she would soon get married and have babies.

“Every day while I was eating in the cafeteria, Wes Graham would ask me, ‘Have you found a job yet?’” she says. “Finally, he said that if no one would give me a job, he would make one for me in his computing group.”

That July, Forster joined Graham in the Computing Centre. She operated several of the early IBM computers, co-ordinated correspondence and meetings with IBM, and taught faculty and other researchers how to use the computer. She also became a Fortran consultant and the de facto computer librarian and wrote several programs, including one for calculating prime numbers, for WATFOR.

Despite these contributions, her name doesn’t appear in any of the university or press coverage of the era. She was also overlooked in aspects of everyday life: there was no women’s bathroom in the Physics building (the first home of the computer science department), and she had to trek to use a special “secretaries’” bathroom. “I wasn’t here long enough to see them build MC,” she says, “but my contribution is that I insisted they include an equal number of women’s washrooms.”

Forster’s relatively unique position in the computing group drew the ire of an unexpected group of people: the secretaries in the payroll department. “I was making more money than most women at the university, and they didn’t like that, so they complained to the president,” Forster says. “Wes responded to the president by saying that I had a bachelor’s degree and could be employed as a high school teacher – so he actually gave me a raise, to the salary of a first-year high school teacher.” By 1965, Forster was the second-highest paid employee in the Operation and Administrative Officers group: Wes Graham made $7,000 a year, and she made $4,500.

“Hold tight to your humanity”

In 1967, Forster left Waterloo to start a family. In the following years, she had a varied and colourful career that included building historical models, designing adult education curricula for refugees, and earning both a BEd and MEd degree. More than forty years after she worked in Wes Graham’s group, her journey led her back to math once more: she started a business tutoring high school and post-secondary students in mathematics and physics, which she did for fifteen years after retirement.

“I’m so proud of the young people I tutored,” she says. “Their teachers and families encouraged them, and all of them have aspirations beyond anything I could have dreamed of.”

Contemporary portrait of Marian Forster

Forster today, at her home in Smiths Falls, Ontario

At the same time, Forster cautions contemporary women in STEM to hold tight to their humanity. “So much of modern technology encourages people to be heartless, to be alienated from others,” she says. “I was marginalized all my life, but I had the opportunities I had because people like Wes Graham were kind and empathetic. The biggest reason that Waterloo was successful in Computer Science was because Wes Graham was, first and foremost, a human being.”