Via the blog of software developers Fog Creek, a look at the forgotten history of women programmers, and the strange ways in which different work fields are labeled as “male” or female”:
Computer science has always been a male-dominated field, right? Wrong.
In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.
In fact, for a hot second back in the mid-sixties, computer programming was actually portrayed as women’s work by the mass media. Check out “The Computer Girls” from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It appeared between pieces called “The Bachelor Girls of Japan” and “A Dog Speaks: Why a Girl Should Own a Pooch.”
There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. Partly, it was just a result of the rise of the commercial computer industry in general. There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field. In fact, many computer science programs were first housed within a variety of departments and colleges, including liberal arts colleges where women had already made cultural inroads. Not least of all — and you knew this was coming — women quickly noticed that some programming work could be done at home while the children were napping.
And then the women left. In droves.
From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.
Why do we care about a long-gone moment in early computing history when the presence of women was unexceptional?
Because it looks like women are now returning to computer science. In the past year, the number of women majoring in Computer Science has nearly double at Harvard, rising from 13% to 25% (still nowhere near the 37% of 1984). And — because Harvard is not actually the center of the universe — it’s nice to know that the trend has been spotted elsewhere.