When computer programming was women’s work

Posted Sept. 04, 2011, at 7:46 p.m.

“It’s just like planning a dinner,” Adm. Grace Hopper, a computer science pioneer, told readers in a 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine 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 that article this summer when I was working in recruiting at a software company. I’d 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.

When Cosmo’s “The Computer Girls” 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 rose rise steadily, peaking at 37 percent in 1984.

Then, women left computer science in droves — just as their numbers were increasing steadily across all other science, technology, engineering, and math fields. By 2006, women represented only 20 percent of those in computer science.

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.

The era of the stay-at-home wife was also the era of the Cold War’s space race. Judging by descriptions in Thomas 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” sat in hot, cramped basement rooms, translating the instructions from the pads onto punched cards. 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 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 flocking to computer science classes, where they could sidestep the legions of “keypunch girls” and enter directly into the ranks of programmers and systems analysts.

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. Men had not yet entered computer science in significant numbers; they, too, were just beginning to respond to industry demand. Computer science was a new frontier in which social and professional rules were still undetermined.

In the Cosmo article, female programmers described themselves “fully accepted as professionals.” 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 — as well as control over good salaries and career s 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? Women today face far fewer deterrents than their predecessors did in the 1960s and 1980s. Universities have sought to recruit them into computer science through high school outreach programs, networking opportunities and a revamped curriculum that de-emphasizes programming experience before college.

But the women I’ve spoken with at career fairs lament the home computer as a boy’s toy, the domination of school computer labs by intimidating male teens and the unappealing sex and violence in most computer games. Most female undergraduates start 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 early professional choices puts w omen at a disadvantage.

Recruiters at top companies are only beginning to recognize how much their words matter when it comes to attracting female candidates. Women majoring in computer science often don’t apply because they feel unqualified for opportunities advertised in highly competitive language.

I recently spoke with a female intern who recalled how the GNOME Project, a free and open source software project, in 2006 received almost 200 Google Summer of Code applicants — all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, emphasizing opportunities for learning and mentorship instead of tough competition, it received applications from more than 100 highly qualified fem ales.

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. In the world of computer science, “when you hear the phrase ‘the world’s best developers,’ you see a guy,” the intern said.

I don’t advocate assessing or hiring candidates according to gender, but I do urge professors and industry leaders to encourage promising young women to consider computer science a field they can master.

Programming offers 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, a freelance talent recruiter and writer based in Durham, N.C., has been director of recruiting at Fog Creek Software in Manhattan.

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