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.
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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