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When computer programming was ‘women’s work’

By Anna Lewis,

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include links to sources, research and statistics that were omitted from the original publication.

“It’s just like planning a dinner,” Adm. Grace Hopper, a computer science pioneer, explained to “Cosmopolitan” readers in a 1967 story. “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it.” Pot roast or computer programming — both, Cosmo told its readers, could be women’s work.

I first came across a mention of that article earlier this summer, when I was working in recruiting at a software company. I had just spent the past year trying to get more undergraduate women to apply for our summer internship program. I kept seeing reports that the number of women majoring in computer science was growing. It was about 25 percent at certain elite institutions, such as Harvard, MIT and Carnegie Mellon. (Little to no increase has been observed at other universities.) That seemed like good news for people in my field — the business of getting a diverse and talented group of people to design software. But it wasn’t exactly a triumphant rise. It’s just a slow climb back to where things used to be.

In 1967, when Cosmo’s “The Computer Girls” article ran, 11 percent of computer science majors were women. In the late 1970s, the percentage of women in the field approached and exceeded the same figure we are applauding today: 25 percent. The portion of women earning computer science degrees continued to rise steadily, reaching its peak — 37 percent — in 1984. Then, over the next two decades, women left computer science in droves — just as their numbers were increasing steadily across all other science, technology, engineering, and math fields. By 2006, the portion of women in computer science had dropped to 20 percent.

The numbers suggest that women with aptitude are out there; they’re just not choosing computer science. Maybe looking back at the “computer girl” moment can help reverse this trend — both for the companies that nurture this talent and for the young women who are choosing not to code. Programming used to be a field that attracted women, even when society was substantially less friendly to the idea of women pursuing lifelong careers in the sciences. (And, as the Cosmo article illustrates, they had to program with beehive hairdos.)

The era of the stay-at-home wife was also the era of the Cold War’s space race. Judging by descriptions in Thomas J. Misa’s essay collection “Gender Codes; Why Women Are Leaving Computing,” computing environments at NASA were the very definition of an occupational gender divide. The control systems that launched men into space were run by mainframe computers that were run by programming instructions written onto paper coding pads. Rows and rows of “keypunch girls” (women) sat in hot, cramped basement rooms, translating the instructions from the pads onto punched cards. Meanwhile, machine operators (men) waited in cool, spacious rooms above for couriers to deliver the translated code decks they would feed through card readers. “Keypunch girls” had no prospect of advancement; they typically held their jobs for a few years between college graduation and marriage. Think “Mad Men” with a techie spin and no room for Peggy Olson.

At the same time, however, the commercial computer industry was booming. Soon enough, the industry faced a dire shortage in programmers and systems analysts, roles that involved designing programming instructions. Like many industries during World War II, computer science needed manpower, and women counted as manpower.

Undergraduate women began to flock to computer science classes. They found they could sidestep the legions of “keypunch girls” and enter directly into the ranks of programmers and systems analysts. But other factors also encouraged their choice. For example, many academic computer science programs were first housed not in science or engineering divisions, but within liberal arts colleges, where women had made cultural inroads. Women were less likely to consider computer science a real “science” that was off limits to their exploration.

Men had not yet entered computer science in significant numbers. They, too, were just beginning to respond to industry demand and had yet to dominate the field. Computer science was a new frontier for women in which the social and professional rules were still to be determined. In the Cosmo article, female programmers professed themselves “fully accepted as professionals” and described their male colleagues as friendly and receptive. In other words, unlike other traditionally female professions or other scientific fields, programming offered to women an unprecedented degree of control: control over machines — “telling the miracle machines what to do and how to do it,” as Cosmo put it; and control over good salaries and careers driven by intellectual aspiration.

Is it possible that, like in the 1960s, industry demand for programmers might be fueling renewed interest among women in computer science? Young women today face far fewer deterrents than their predecessors did in the 1960s and 1980s. Universities have made an effort to recruit more young women into computer science through high school outreach programs, by providing more networking opportunities for undergraduates, and by revamping the curriculum to deemphasize programming experience before college.

But the women I’ve spoken with at career fairs continue to lament the home computer as a boy’s toy; the domination of school computer labs by intimidating teenage boys; the unappealing sex and violence in most computer games. At the undergraduate level, most women still enter into introductory courses with less experience than their male counterparts, who typically have been hacking since their early teens. And because female computer science majors are few and far between, and because they tend to make friends outside their major, the lack of personal friendships that help inform and support early professional choices still puts women at a disadvantage.

Recruiters at top companies are only beginning to recognize how much their words matter when it comes to attracting female candidates. Frequently, women who major in computer science do not think they are qualified for opportunities advertised in highly competitive language, so they opt out of applying. When I spoke with a female intern this summer, she recounted how, in 2006, the GNOME Project, a free and open source software project, received almost 200 Google Summer of Code applicants. All of them were male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, emphasizing opportunities for learning and mentorship instead of tough competition, they received more than 100 highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. What amazed me even more was when she suggested that our own company slogan — “We Help the World’s Best Developers Make Better Software” — might alienate prospective female candidates. That had never occurred to me. But according to our intern, in the world of computer science, “when you hear the phrase ‘the world’s best developers,’ you see a guy.”

Last spring, a co-worker approached me after an interview with a promising female candidate. He had rejected her and, anticipating my disappointment, wanted to apologize. I reminded him that I do not advocate assessing or hiring candidates just because of their sex. But I do urge professors and industry leaders to encourage young women with aptitude to consider computer science a field they can master.

Programming offers meaningful intellectual challenges, the chance to change contemporary life through technology — and a hefty starting salary. More and more young women want in and they should have access. Decades ago, well-paid professional women programmed with passion and imagination alongside men who welcomed them as peers. Today’s “computer girls” — and their male counterparts – are poised to do the same.

annalewis7@gmail.com

Anna Lewis is a freelance talent recruiter and writer based in Durham, N.C. Until recently, she served as director of recruiting at Fog Creek Software in Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter at @annalewis7.

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