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Computer Girls and Why Most Programmers are Men

We need diversity in programming if we want to solve complex and difficult problems. But diversity in this industry is seriously lacking. The more I research the gender gap in programming, the more passionate I get! Let’s take a look today at the history of programming and why men seem to dominate this field.

Software as a woman’s job

SI Neg. 83-14878. Date: na.Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language).Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

Grace Murray Hopper, c. 1960. Grace Brewster Murray: American mathematician and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was a pioneer in developing computer technology, helping to devise UNIVAC I. This was the first commercial electronic computer. She also helped with naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

At the dawn of computers, writing software was a woman’s job. Men developed hardware, which was thought to be harder and more important at the time. Because of this, apparently math majors were very popular among women in the 1930’s (NPR). But women typically used these degrees to teach. However, during World War II, a lot of talented women signed up to help with the war. This meant that women were finally working alongside men at computing machines, such as ENIAC.

Grace Hopper was one such woman. She joined the Navy Reserve during the war. This amazing woman had such an impact that people called her “amazing Grace”. She led the team that invented the first programming language that used words for commands: COBOL. This was a turning point in software development, as it could now be used with any piece of hardware.

The Computer Girls

The Computer Girls at work

The Computer Girls at work

According to historian Nathan Ensmenger, programming stayed popular with women through the 1960’s. In fact, it was so popular that Cosmopolitan Magazine ran an article in April 1967 called “The Computer Girls”. This article encouraged more women to join the tech world. They promised this industry gave woman a chance to succeed, since there was no “sex discrimination in hiring”.

That’s probably not entirely true. I would be shocked to find that women were treated equally to men. And it seems that others agree with me. An article called “Making Programming Masculine” by Dr. Nathan Ensmenger called out this Cosmo article for being condescending and sexist.

Grace Hopper was not only “amazing Grace”– she was “The Queen of Software”, too. David Letterman called her this on his show in 1986. Grace famously said told a reporter that programming is “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming”.

Men take over

Women might have dominated software for a while, but men eventually took over. An article by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University reveals how software became a man’s domain and how “computer geeks” replaced “computer girls”:

Computer Boys taking over

Computer Boys taking over

Men had finally realized that they could make money from programming. So they started forming professional associations and unions, which were presumably for men only. In another blow to women, men created ad campaigns to discourage employers from hiring women. They claimed women are inefficient and are prone to make errors. With their reasoning, this mean that women cost much more than male employees.

To make it even harder for women, companies started using new, unfair hiring requirements. Entry tests were specifically prepared to give men a huge advantage. There was even an entry personality test. Apparently, the ideal programmer would be white-collar, disinterested in people, and disliked social interactions.

This is how stereotypes were formed

So with all that in mind, it’s no wonder that most programmers are male. And it makes sense that programmers now have the stereotype of being asocial and geeky. These stereotypes are exactly what created the gender gap in the industry.

I want to note that I am not blaming men now for what happened before. I’m not saying men are evil. And women are certainly not the only group discriminated against. But I believe it is important to recognize that women are just as capable of being great programmers as men. The stereotypes we have today are ready to be broken– how will you move our society forward?

<the blonde>

P.S. I found an excellent resource with posters that illustrate how Computer Boys took over Computer Girls. If you are interested to look at pictures starting from the 1967 Cosmopolitan issue, to campaigns run by professional male associations, follow this link.


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