The Secret History of Women in Coding

For years now, I’ve been following the thread of stories about the overwhelming imbalance of white men in the software industry. Over and over, I’ve seen the questions: “How did this start? Where do we fix it?”. This is the first article I’ve read which makes a serious, well-researched effort to actually answer the question. If, like me, you’ve been concerned about this subject, I highly recommend spending some quality time reading it over.

I’ll take a stab at summarizing some of the high points, but I urge you to go read the full article yourself.

In the early days of computing, the hard part was the hardware. So, that was an area which was pretty strictly segregated along sexist lines. However, writing the software was seen as less challenging, and therefore the process of identifying programmers was mostly done using purely objective measures: usually a battery of tests which determined an applicant’s abilities to solve logic problems. In these tests, men and women tended to score equally well, and so the earliest programmers included a great many women.

In fact, sexism crept in here as well… to favor more women programmers. Since the software part was seen (erroneously) as being largely secretarial in nature (it definitely isn’t), women were often favored for such positions. It wasn’t uncommon to see these massive, room-sized machines tended to by all-female teams of programmers.

This persisted right up to around the personal computer revolution sparked by Apple and IBM in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Before this point, computers were exclusively found at large companies and universities. All students or job applicants hoping to work with them were expected to come in with no experience, and to be taught along the way. This all changed when most families could afford to have a computer in the home.

With computers being commonplace in the home, the gender biases of the typical American family started to play a massive influence over who would eventually become programmers. Young boys would be encouraged to play with the new machines, while girls would be steered toward more typically feminine pursuits. By the late 80’s and early 90’s, this lead to college computer science departments starting to see a huge influx of freshmen who already knew a fair bit about computers: most of them men.

According to the article, this is what started the feedback loop which drove women out of computer science. Overwhelmingly, the students who seemed the most precocious were male, and the professors started to offer preferential treatment to those students. Not surprisingly, this creates a very hostile environment for students starting out the program without any computer experience: largely women.

In the predictable 4–5 years later, the same situation started to play itself out in industry. Programming jobs were increasingly seen as the province of men, and those women talented and brave enough to break into the industry faced an increasingly uphill battle as the balance of men to women continued to shift. Combined with programming increasingly being seen as a challenging intellectual endeavor, the latent sexism already present lead to women being increasingly ignored, trivialized, and passed over. Over the next 10 years, you start to see the alarming figures of 80%–90% men in technical positions at the largest, top-tier companies in the software industry.

What to do?

Even better than merely recounting this dismal history, the article actually talks about some places which are successfully counteracting this trend. In particular, I was impressed with Carnegie Mellon’s approach (which has resulted in 40% of students in the CS department being female). Recognizing the difficulty of new students entering the program without prior programming experience, they’ve started offering different classes to incoming freshmen based upon whether they have prior programming experience. By the time these students have gotten through the first half of the degree, they’ve pretty much all equalled out based upon their own natural talent.

The article talks about a number of other positive steps being taken as well, but not without pointing out that many other problems remain unsolved.

✧✧✧

I do not accept guilt by association. So, despite the villains of this piece being male, I do not personally feel guilty to share some coincidental characteristics with them. Instead, I see a group of people who have been treated unfairly for far too long, and I find myself in the position of being able to say something against it. This is not about hating men, nor wanting to coddle women. It’s about hating injustice, and wanting to put a stop to it in whatever form, no matter how similar the perpetrator, or how different the victim.

I am proud to look back to all the women mentioned in this article (and the much larger number who weren’t) as fellow engineers who made my career possible. I appreciate them for it, and I’m glad to pass along word of their accomplishments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s