Binary Coeds

The Secret History of Women in Programming

Programmers Betty Jean Jeannings and Fran Bilas in 1943 operating one of the first computers. Source: U.S. Army photo from ARL Technical Library.

Programmers Betty Jean Jeannings and Fran Bilas in 1943 operating one of the first computers. Source: U.S. Army photo from ARL Technical Library.

By Andrew Parsons

You might be aware of the controversy Newsweek stirred with its February cover story, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women.” Critics say the cover art perpetuates exactly the female stereotypes the story challenges. But like it or not, Newsweek has sparked once again a conversation over the lack of women in tech jobs.

The idea the male programmer may be a stereotype, but having a male-heavy workforce is a real issue for the industry. Companies see a big gender disparity when they look at their technical workforce, and many are asking themselves how to get more women into computer science. But when you look at the history of computer programming, the question actually looks a little different. It’s less about how to get women into computer science than about how to get women back into computing.

Let’s start with the word. “The term computer was first applied to refer to a person, and that person was a woman,” says Silicon Valley historian Margaret O’Mara. Decades before electronic computers, women were human computers. They were the ones actually doing the math on big aerospace engineering projects.

When electronic computers were invented, the job of programming these new machines went to women. In the early 1940s, a military-run lab at the University of Pennsylvania created one of the first electronic computers to calculate missile trajectories. It was called the ENIAC project.

O’Mara says programming went to women because that job wasn’t seen as especially important. In the early days, getting the software to work right was treated as a job for a “glorified telephone operator,” or maybe a secretary. O’Mara says the idea was that “all you had to do was plug the wires in the right plug and that would make it work, that real artistry was in designing the hardware of the computer — and that’s what the men on the teams did.”

But these women were more than just secretaries. Most had advanced degrees in mathematics. They were computing complex equations and feeding them into the machines.

And that’s not all they did. Early computers were massive, wall-sized behemoths. They were finicky and broke down a lot. Computer science historian Nathan Ensmenger says the women had to creatively troubleshoot the machines.

“It very quickly became apparent that programming a computer was hard, if not harder than actually building it. So these women very quickly assumed a much more prominent role in making these computers work.”

Christine Darden, a retired NASA engineer, started as a human computer at NASA in the early 1960s. She quickly began programming and soon used it as a ladder to her career in engineering.

The turning point came when she found herself correcting an engineer on his calculations in the code she wrote. “I did say, ‘Well you know, gee, I can do the kind of work they’re doing,’ ” Darden says. “And that sort of put me on the path of going back and pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ensmenger says, computer programming was seen as a growth industry for women. In 1967, the magazine Cosmopolitan, known at the time for its frank discussion of sex, ran an story called “Computer Girls.”

It quoted women in the industry like Jane Adams of the Association for Computing Machinery. Adams expresses the great promise tech jobs seemed to hold for women: “I don’t know any other field outside of teaching where there’s as much opportunity for women. Soon mothers will be telling their daughters, ‘Study your arithmetic so you can become a computer girl.’ ”

The opening pages of a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing.

The opening pages of a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine. Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing.

The story also quoted prominent computer scientists, like Grace Hopper, arguing that the profession fit women’s temperaments. “Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail,” Hopper told Cosmo. “Women are natural at computer programming.”

Ensmenger says the numbers bear out what Cosmo had to say. He says at least 30 percent of programmers through the 1970s were women, which was very high compared to other technical professions, like engineering, accounting and architecture. “Cosmo and the author have it exactly right,” Ensmenger says about this era. “Computing is wide open.”

As the 1970s progressed, computer programming was even seen as something that was compatible with working mothers and fathers who wanted to make their own schedules. They could work from home, O’Mara says — it was family-friendly. “I found these stories of these companies that are trying this out and doing this as a way to keep people more diverse and their programming workforce more diverse,” she says. “And that’s the great irony. That, somehow, very quickly goes away.”

Today of course our stereotypes of computer programmers are male-oriented. Take the HBO series Silicon Valley, which features a group of guys starting a software company, living together in something like a frat house. On the show, simply having a female visitor is remarkable — and not in a good way. One character says, “It’s strange having a girl in the house. There’s a very strange energy.”

All this adds up to the question, What happened? How did an industry where programming was nearly all women, become one that many say is hostile toward women?

Well, first of all, in the 1960s it was clear that programming software was going to be the future of computing, and for that reason alone it begins to attract more men. MIT and Stanford founded now legendary computer science programs. O’Mara says the image of the distinctly male programmer we see in the media today has its roots in the labs at those universities, which were often environments not particularly welcoming to women.

“They are pulling all-nighters, they are not showering, they are sitting in front of computer terminals,” says O’Mara. “It’s like a frat house without the beer. That’s where the legend begins.”

By the 1980s, the “legends” were guys like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The image of the weird, brilliant hacker captured the media’s attention. The 1983 classic WarGames — featuring Matthew Broderick as one such brilliant young hacker — spawned a whole genre of film.

Now, to be fair, there are many factors that pushed women out of programming in the 80s. Coding jobs were becoming better paid, attracting even more men. Male-dominated corporations were starting to take over. But the legend… that mattered too. Ensmenger says it started to shape industry notions of who should be a programmer.

“Corporations begin to believe that in order to be a good programmer you must also be obsessive and antisocial. They hire programmers who are like that, and before you know it, you have a programming group full of antisocial, obsessive — largely — men.”

“Culture really matters,” O’Mara says. “Culture matters in the beginning, middle and end of this story. And when we talk to women who have been really successful programmers … a lot of them will say, ‘Well, the way that I did it is, I just had to get a thick skin.’ ”

That’s the experience of Eileen Fagan. She’s a vice president at the tech company Intuit and worked at IBM as a software developer in the 1980s.

She says the male-dominant culture among the programmers expressed itself in small ways. She was usually the only woman in meetings. “I got chastised once for wearing pants to work instead of a dress,” she says. “You had to work a little harder to gain the respect of your peers, it’s really that simple.” Fagan says she was primed by a childhood of being the only girl among two brothers and five male cousins.

Fagan’s experience isn’t unique. The perception of computer programming as a boys club has had a big impact. The percentage of women enrolled in computer science programs peaked in the early ’80s and and has since been on the decline.

O’Mara says that’s because of the public image of the coder. “Women and girls look at that and say, ‘I don’t see myself.’ ” At Google, for instance, women today make up just 17 percent of the technical workforce.

There’s no silver bullet to solve the tech industry’s diversity problem. Some say it starts with encouraging girls to get into math and science when they’re in grade school. Some say it’s about actively recruiting women into Silicon Valley jobs. And others say it’s about changing industry culture — so when women arrive in tech, they stay.

It’s likely that all of these solutions are needed to solve the problem. But maybe there’s another solution to consider, Ensmenger says: “I think it’s telling the history correctly. The stories we tell about the history of computing are largely mythologies, not real history.”

Check out more on BackStory’s episode Women at Work. Also check out Nathan Ensmenger’s book The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, and Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley.

CORRECTION: A previous iteration of this story identified Intuit’s Vice President of Transformational Change Programs, Eileen Fagan, as Eileen Hagan. We regret the mistake. 



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