The History of Women in Software and Programming

When you think of a programmer or a group of programmers, most people wouldn’t think of women programming but rather something like this:



or even this:



But historically, programmers actually looked more like this:



This is the fascinating story about how women used to be dominating software development and programming. Unfortunately, female programmers have experienced a huge drop in the past decades. On the bright side, the women in programming seem to be returning. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning of computing, the very beginning…


Almost 200 years ago…

The first person to be what we would now call a coder was, in fact, a woman. Lady Ada Lovelace was a young mathematician in England in 1833 when she met Charles Babbage. He was an inventor struggling to design what he called the Analytical Engine. The machine was supposed to be made out of metal gears and able to execute if-then commands and store information in memory. Enthralled, Lovelace grasped the enormous potential of a device like this. A computer that could modify its own instructions and memory could be far more than a rote calculator, she realized.


To prove it, Lovelace wrote what is often regarded as the first computer program in history. It was the algorithm with which the Analytical Engine would calculate the Bernoulli sequence of numbers. But Babbage never managed to build his computer, and Lovelace, who tragically died of cancer at 36, never saw her code executed on a machine.


In the 1940s…

Many types of machines were invented, the most notable was probably Alan Turing’s Enigma machine during WWII, but many other powerful machines were built during the same years.


The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or Eniac, got funding by the US military. The thing was a behemoth, weighing more than 30 tons and including 17,468 vacuum tubes. Women frequently worked as the punch-card operators for these overgrown calculators. So, when the time came to hire technicians to write instructions for the Eniac, it made sense to pick an all-female team: Kathleen McNulty, Jean JenningsBetty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. Back then, men would figure out what they wanted Eniac to do, while women “were programming” it to execute the instructions.


How the “break point” came to life

The Eniac women were among the first coders to discover that software never works right the first time. The programmer’s main work often boiled down to find and fix bugs. Their innovations included some of software’s core concepts. Betty Snyder realized that if you wanted to debug a program, it would be helpful to have a “break point”. In other words, a moment when you could stop a program midway through its run. To this day, break points are a key part of the debugging process.


In 1946, Eniac’s creators wanted to show off the computer to a group of leaders in science, technology and the military. They asked Jennings and Snyder to write a program that calculated missile trajectories. After weeks of intense effort, they and their team had a working program, except for one glitch. It was supposed to stop when the missile landed, but for some reason, it kept running. The night before the demo, Snyder suddenly intuited the problem. She went to work early the next day, flipped a single switch inside the Eniac and eliminated the bug. “Betty could do more logical reasoning while she was asleep than most people can do awake,” Jennings has later been quoted to say. Nonetheless, the women got little credit for their work. At that first official demonstration to show off Eniac, the male project managers didn’t mention, much less introduce, the women.


After the WWII

After the war, as coding jobs spread from the military into both public and private sector, women remained in the programming vanguard, doing some of the highest-profile work. The pioneering programmer Grace Hopper is frequently credited with creating the first “compiler”. It was a program that lets users create programming languages that more closely resemble regular written words. A coder could thus write the English-like code, and the compiler would do the hard work of turning it into ones and zeros for the computer.


Hopper also developed the “Flowmatic” language for nontechnical people, typically business people. Later, she advised the team that created the Cobol language, which became widely used by corporations. Another programmer from the team, Jean E. Sammet, continued to be influential in the language’s development for decades. Frances “Fran” Allen was so good at optimizing Fortran – a popular language for performing scientific calculations – that she became the first female IBM fellow and went on to become the first woman to win the Turing Award in 2006.


In the 1950s and 1960s…

The number of coding jobs exploded, as companies began relying on software to process more and more data electronically. Employers looked for candidates who were logical, good at math and meticulous. And in this respect, gender stereotypes worked in women’s favor. Some executives argued that women’s traditional expertise at painstaking activities like knitting and weaving manifested precisely this mindset. The 1968 book “Your Career in Computers” even stated that people who like “cooking from a cookbook” make good programmers.


By the 1960s, the far majority of all workers were men. But in software, more than one in four programmers were women. Legendary computer programmer Mary Allen Wilkes recalls while at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Labs in the 1960s, that most of those the government categorized as “career programmers” were female. M.I.T wasn’t the only place hiring female programmers at the time. The inspirational movie Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, tells the true story of a team of female African-American mathematicians, who served vital roles in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. When Wilkes talks to today’s young coders and programmers, they are often shocked to learn that women were among the field’s earliest, towering innovators, and once a common sight in corporate America.


Computations Inc., the all-female consultancy

Elsie Shutt learned to code during her college summers while working for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army facility in Maryland. In 1953, while taking time off from graduate school, she was hired to code for Raytheon. There the programmer workforce “was about 50 percent men and 50 percent women,” she told Janet Abbate, a Virginia Tech historian and author of the 2012 book “Recoding Gender”. “And it really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work!”


When Shutt had a child in 1957, state law required her to leave her job. The ’50s and ’60s may have been welcoming to full-time female coders. But firms were unwilling to offer part-time work, even to superb coders. So Shutt founded Computations Inc., a consultancy that produced code for corporations. She hired stay-at-home mothers as part-time employees. If they didn’t already know how to code, she trained them. They cared for their kids during the day, then coded at night, renting time on local computers.


“What it turned into was a feeling of mission,” Shutt told Abbate, “in providing work for women who were talented and did good work and couldn’t get part-time jobs”. Business Week called the Computations workforce the “pregnant programmers” in a 1963 article. Inside, there was a photo with a picture of a baby in a bassinet in a home hallway, with the mother in the background, writing software. The article’s title: “Mixing Math and Motherhood.”


In the 1970s and 1980s…

A study revealed in the 70s showed an equal number of men and women who expressed an interest in programming as a career. Men were more likely to enroll in computer science programs. Despite that, women’s participation rose steadily and rapidly through the late ’70s until the 1983-84 academic year. But in 1984, things took a turn. From 1984 onwards, the female participation rate dropped. By 2010 it was only 17.6 percent female students graduating from computer-science and information-science programs.


The turn of events originates not from George Orwell’s 1984 book, but from girls getting a clear message both at home and school. Computers were for boys. Geeky boys who formed computer clubs. These groups often snubbed not only girls but also Black and Latino boys.


This explained the massive drop in the number of female computer science students. For those studying computer science, a great divide became evident between the sizable number of men who were already confident in basic programming from home, and the women who were frequently complete neophytes. A cultural schism had emerged. The women started doubting their ability.



Adding to the problem, an abundance of students were racing to enroll in computer science. However, universities didn’t have enough professors to teach everyone. Some added hurdles, courses that students had to pass before they could be accepted into the computer science major. Punishing workloads and classes that covered the material at a lightning pace weeded out those who didn’t get it immediately. All this fostered an environment in which the selected students were those who had already been exposed to coding — young white men, mostly.


In the 1990s and 2000s…

In 1991, Ellen Spertus, now a computer scientist at Mills College, published a report on women’s experiences in programming classes. She cataloged a landscape populated by men who snickered about the presumed inferiority of women. She also noted the professors who told female students that they were “far too pretty” to be studying electrical engineering. As programming was shutting its doors to women in academia, a similar transformation was taking place in corporate America. The emergence of what would be called “culture fit” was changing the who, and the why, of the hiring process. Managers began picking coders less on the basis of aptitude. But more on how well they fit a personality type: the acerbic, aloof male nerd.


In addition to testing for logical thinking, companies began using personality tests to select specifically for these sorts of loner qualities. The hunt for that personality type often cut women out. Managers might shrug and accept a man who was unkempt, but they wouldn’t tolerate a woman who behaved the same way. Programming increasingly required late nights. Therefore, managers claimed that it was too unsafe for women to work into the wee hours, so they forbid them to stay late with the men.


By the 1990s and 2000s, the pursuit of “culture fit” was in full force. It was most common at start-ups, which involved a relatively small number of people working for long hours. Founders looked to hire people who were socially and culturally similar to them.


In the 2010s…

In the summer of 2017, a Google employee named James Damore suggested in an internal email that several qualities more commonly found in women — including higher rates of anxiety — explained why they weren’t thriving in a competitive world of coding. He cited the cognitive neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, who theorizes that the male brain is more likely to be “systemizing,” compared to women’s “empathizing” brains. Google fired Damore, saying it could not employ someone who would argue that his female colleagues were inherently unsuited for the job. The assumption that programming as a profession reflects a pure meritocracy runs deep among many Silicon Valley men. For them, sociobiology offers a way to explain things.


But if biology is the reason why there are so few women in programming today, it would be impossible to explain why women were so prominent back in the days. Back then, it was an uncharted territory, in which you had to do math in binary and hexadecimal formats. There were also no internet forums to help out, no Google to query for assistance. It was just your brain in a jar, solving one problem at a time.


Thankfully, the gender gap in programming is not the same in every country. In India, roughly 40 percent of the students studying computer science and related fields are women. The picture has been similar in Malaysia, where in 2001, women represented 52 percent of the undergraduate computer-science majors and 39 percent of the Ph.D. candidates at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.


But a shift is starting to take shape…

The result today is an industry that is drastically more male than it was decades ago. In 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26 percent of the workers in “computer and mathematical occupations” were women. The percentages for people of color are similarly low. For example, Black employees were 8.4%, Latinos 7.5%. In the more rarefied world of the top Silicon Valley tech firms, the numbers are even more austere. A 2017 analysis by Recode, revealed that 20% of Google’s technical employees were women, while only 1% were Black and 3% were Hispanic. Facebook was nearly identical; the numbers at Twitter were 15%, 2%, and 4%, respectively.


In the last few years, women’s interest in programming has begun to rise rapidly throughout the United States. In 2012, the percentage of female undergraduates who plan to major in computer science began to rise at rates not seen for 35 years, since the decline in the mid-’80s, according to research by Linda Sax, an education professor at U.C.L.A. There has also been a boomlet of groups and organizations training and encouraging underrepresented cohorts to enter the field, like Black Girls Code and Code Newbie. In purely economic terms coding acts as a bastion of well-paying and engaging work.



The future

Nowadays, when computers are part of the warp and weft of life’s daily fabric, potential female coders worry less that the job will be isolated, antisocial and distant from reality. In addition, it’s much easier to learn programming without getting a full degree. Today you can sing up for free online coding schools, bootcamps and meetup groups for newcomers.


At Wiredelta, we always look for great talent, and women often hold an untapped potential that we want to unlock. So if you are considering a career in software development, don’t hesitate to hop over to our Jobs page for more information.


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