Computer Programming Once Belonged to Women - It's Time to Take It Back

It’s widely known that technology companies have among the lowest gender diversity numbers. Leadership positions are dominated by males, there is a lack of female programmers, and the pipeline of female graduates is bleak, with some choosing to not even enter the field after graduating. As a result, recruiters broker the fight to capture top female talent, and culture initiatives seek to reshape the “bro culture” that is inhospitable to women. Countless partnerships targeted at girls and young women have sprung up to pique and maintain interest in programming and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers at critical development stages when girls are deciding whether to take part in what’s perceived as a boy’s domain.

But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, in fact, when computer programming was considered women’s work. 

In a fascinating story, Josh O’Connor recounts how women pioneered computer programming. In the 1930’s female mathematicians like Jean Bartik were responsible for calculating trajectories of military rockets and artillery shells by hand. In the 40’s, Bartik created the program that ran on the first large-scale electronic computer. And in 1959, a woman named Grace Hopper invented a method of programming a computer with words instead of numbers that allowed operators to give the computer commands in English. You might have heard of it, it’s called COBOL and it’s still widely used today.

In fact, in the 50’s it is believed that up to half of the computer programmers were women. The predominate cultural belief at this time was that a woman’s aptitude for planning ahead, scheduling and doing complex calculations made her a natural match for programming roles. A Cosmopolitan article in 1967 called female programmers the wave of the future. 

So what changed?

Nathan Ensmenger, author of The Computer Boys Take Over, describes the masculinization of computer programming. As programming gained prominence as a career, salaries for programming work rose significantly. Men became more interested in what was becoming an increasingly lucrative and highly valued line of work. As the value of programming work rose, perceptions of who was better suited for the work began to shift from women to men. Professional associations also started to pop up (for men) and ad campaigns blackballed women from the roles. This shift was supported by personality tests that were heavily biased toward men, and affirmed that men’s social ineptitude was a positive substitute to women who were naturally social…chatty…gossipy. From there the stereotype of the male STEM superstar was reinforced in business (think Jobs and Gates) and in Hollywood with the popularized male geek and nerd characters.

There are many examples now coming to light where talented females were shunned, overtaken, or marginalized.

Just recently brought to light are historic rejection letters to female engineers in the 1920’s who were desperate to form an engineering society to connect the few and mighty female engineers across American universities. Responses to their requests included, “We have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department.” Other responses stated that women were not permitted to apply to the engineering program, and there seemed to be no interest on the part of women for enrolling in engineering classes at this point in time. 

As I reflect on these astonishing accounts I can’t help but wonder - what can we learn from this and what can each of us begin to do differently to change our perceptions moving forward?

There is incredible value in talking about and sharing stories of brilliant women who have long been marginalized in their respective STEM fields. In recognizing these voices, even years later, we can begin to challenge deeply ingrained cultural perceptions about what both women and men are ‘naturally inclined to do.’

However, simply recognizing the history of women’s role in computer programming and other STEM fields is not enough and here’s why. Our world is being driven by technology more and more each day. PWC predicts that 38% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in the next 15 years. STEM fields present an incredible opportunity for individuals who want to challenge, innovate and bring meaningful advancements into how we live our lives. While there is speculation about the degree of impact on particular sectors and how fast AI will infiltrate our world, we do know this for certain - women have an incredible capacity to shape and lead these fields. The lynchpin in making AI successful lies in how close to human interaction it can replicate. If history has proved anything, it’s that women certainly have engineering and mathematic aptitude. Combine this with the social, human and collaboration skills that woman have long been known for, and it would seem that true progress may be impossible without them.

Each of us has the ability to recognize and challenge these stereotypes that simply aren’t true. The most frustrating part is that these stereotypes were manufactured out of pure ego, power and greed. And today they have become deeply engrained beliefs that are harmful to the confidence and career prospects of girls and women around the world. Intellectually stimulating work is not just for men. Girls are good at math. Being a geek, nerd or socially inept is not what makes a successful engineer today. When you hear and see these stereotypes, point them out, challenge them and remember how much our understanding of women’s contributions in these fields has been shaped by the stories that we have and haven’t heard.    

Let’s continue what Bartik, Hopper and many others started long ago. Let’s take back our STEM roots, step up and shape a better future.