Computer Girls and Masculinisation of Programming as a Profession

The more I research the subject, the more interesting information I find. The other day I wrote a post about the gender gap in the programming world and today I’d like to go in more details about its history.

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. the first commercial electronic computer, and naval applications for COBOL (common-business-oriented language). Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

At the dawn of computers, writing software was a woman’s job, while men focused on developing hardware – the task that was considered harder and more important at the time. According to an article by NPR, maths majors were very popular among women during 1930s. Women were good mathematicians but generally preferred to teach. However, during World War II, a lot of talented women signed up to help with the war, which for many meant working at computing machines such as ENIAC.

An important breakthrough was made by Grace Hopper, a math professor who joined the Navy Reserve during the war. “Amazing Grace”, as people called her, 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 across any piece of hardware.

The Computer Girls

The Computer Girls at work
The Computer Girls at work

According to Nathan Ensmenger, a historian, programming was still popular among women in 1960s. In fact, there was an article in the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine called “The Computer Girls”, that talked about a prestigious industry where a woman could really succeed, as there was no “sex discrimination in hiring”. Of course, the article is quite naive and, as professor Ensmenger puts it in his paper “Making Programming Masculine”, condescending and sexist. However, it reflects the fashion and the atmosphere of the time.

Grace Hopper or “The Queen of Software”, as David Letterman called her on his show in 1986, 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”.

Masculinisation of the Profession

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

Once men realised that programming was a profitable field, they started to form professional associations and unions, creating campaigns and ads discouraging employers from hiring women. They claimed that women are inefficient and are prone to make errors, meaning that they cost much more than male employees.

At the same time, new hiring requirements and tools have been introduced, making it increasingly more difficult for women to get the job. Entry tests were prepared in a way that gave men a huge advantage and, according to professor Esmenger, there was an entry personality test, seeking the ideal programming mindset – people with white-collar traits, but it was also required that they: “displayed “disinterest in people” and that they disliked “activities involving close personal interaction”.”

This is how stereotypes were formed

As you can see, this has discouraged women from the profession and created the image of programmers being antisocial and geeky. These stereotypes are exactly what has created the gender gap in the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, by writing this, I’m obviously not blaming anyone for what has happened and I’m not saying that men are evil. The society was different back then and this is not the worst thing that has happened in the history of mankind. But I believe that it is important to understand that women are just as capable of succeeding in the programming as men are. Knowing that the stereotypes we have today are a result of a campaign is a relief, now we just need to break them.

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P.S. I have 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.

P.P.S. It’s almost shocking, campaigns like that would simply be not be allowed nowadays (or at least I hope).


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