THE SECRET HISTORY OF WOMEN IN CODING

COMPUTER PROGRAMMING ONCE HAD MUCH BETTER GENDER BALANCE THAN IT DOES TODAY. WHAT WENT WRONG?

After World War II, as coding jobs spread from the military into the private sector, women remained in the world of coding–doing some of the most high-profile work.

When the number of coding jobs exploded in the 50’s and 60’s as companies began relying on software to process payrolls and assimilate data, men had no special advantage in being hired. Employers simply looked for candidates who were logical, good at math, and meticulous. And in this instance, gender stereotypes worked in women’s favor: some executives argued that women’s traditional expertise at activities–such as knitting and weaving–manifested precisely this mind-set. This field rewarded aptitude. People applying for the job were often given a test (typically one involving pattern recognition). If one passed the test, he or she would be hired and trained on the job.

By 1967, there were so many female programmers that Cosmopolitan magazine published an article about “The Computer Girls,” accompanied by pictures of women at work on computers. The story noted that women could make $20,000 per year doing this work. Computer science was the rare white-collar occupation in which women could thrive.

1984 was the year in which women began to be forced out of programming. And by 2010, 17.6% of the students graduating from computer science programs were women.

One reason for this vertiginous decline has to do with a change in how and when kids learned to program. The advent of personal computers in the late ’70s and early ’80s remade the pool of students who pursued computer-science degrees. Before then, pretty much every student who showed up at college had never touched a computer or even been in the room with one. Computers were rare and expensive devices, available for the most part only in research labs or corporate settings. Nearly all students were on equal footing, in other words, and new to programming.

Boys received much more exposure to computers than girls had; for example, boys were more than twice as likely to have been given one as a gift by their parents. And if parents bought a computer for the family, they most often put it in a son’s room, not a daughter’s. Sons also tended to have what amounted to an “internship” relationship with fathers, working through basic-language manuals with them, receiving encouragement from them; the same wasn’t true for daughters. In addition to this, mothers were typically less engaged with computers in the home. Girls, even the nerdy ones, picked up these cues and seemed to dial back their enthusiasm accordingly. These were pretty familiar roles for boys and girls, historically: boys were cheered on for playing with construction sets and electronics kits, while girls were steered toward dolls and toy kitchens. And at school, girls got much the same message: computers were for boys. 

By the 80’s, the early pioneering work done by female programmers had mostly been forgotten. It was not until 2012 that the percentage of female undergraduates who plan to major in computer science began to rise at rates not seen for 35 years.

Changing the culture in schools and at home is the single most important thing for creating gender equality in STEM. We need to create a positive, encouraging, and welcoming environment in which all children–regardless of gender–can thrive and be allowed to discover and pursue their STEM passions.

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