Louëlla Creemers
Lou's Blog Exploring Tech

Lou's Blog Exploring Tech

From a Woman’s Job to a Man’s World

From a Woman’s Job to a Man’s World

A social history class about why women left coding

Louëlla Creemers's photo
Louëlla Creemers
·Aug 2, 2022·

8 min read

Table of contents

Hey lovely readers,

Did you know that programming was once seen as a woman’s job? Not many people do but it is true. Since 1984 there has been a huge decline in the number of women trying to get into Computer Science. There’s a lot of history behind women in tech, how it was a female-dominated field at some point, and the big decline. I did some research, read books and articles, and decided to write a short condensed version of what happened to women in tech for everybody that wants to know.

Once upon a time

Women were dominating the software development field once upon a time. It started with a woman in 1842, leading up to software for very big and important computers in world war 2. There’s a lot to be said about this period in time with a lot of interesting history so let’s get into it.

The very first software programmer

The very first person that history considers to be a software programmer is Ada Lovelace. Ada Lovelace was a young English mathematician. She came up with an algorithm that would calculate Bernoulli numbers which could change the state of a machine by using loops and if/else statements. The machine she made this algorithm for was never completed and the idea was forgotten until the notebooks were rediscovered in 1937. Ada Lovelace never saw her work used, but it helped the first American computers a lot.

Women and their ‘secretary’ jobs

When computers became the next big thing for the military around the 1940s, women were popular candidates for programming jobs. Software and coding were considered secondary, and a less interesting task. Because it was a lot of typing, it was also considered a secretary job. Men would do the building of the massive computers, working on the hardware and women would be told what these computers had to do and code it for them.

The first programmable computer in the USA was the ENIAC. A huge machine weighing more than 30 tons. Because writing software was seen as a woman’s job, of course they picked an all-female team to code it: Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Frances Bilas and Ruth Lichterman.

The ENIAC women discovered that software almost never works right the first time and wrote about their experiences on how to solve issues. Betty Snyder came up with the idea in order to ‘debug’ they could use a ‘breakpoint’ to stop the program midway. We still use these terms and principles to this day.

This team of women was very successful with writing software for the military of the US but unfortunately got very little credit for their work. At the first demo of the ENIAC, the male project managers didn’t even feel the need to introduce this all-female team to the most important leaders in science and technology that were attending.

After World War 2

After the second world war, the coding jobs in the US went from just the military field to the private sector. Women were, as more programmers were needed, still the most eager to take those jobs. Big names around this time were for example Grace Hopper, who created the first ‘compiler’. This meant that people could program in a language that was more close to English instead of binary. She was also an adviser or the team that would develop COBOL, which became the next big thing for companies all around the world. Another big name is Fran Allen, who was an expert in optimizing Fortran. Fortran was the language used for performing scientific calculations at that point in time.

The booming 1960s

In the 1960s the US needed way more computers that could run banks, the government, the military, and more important places Because the computing world started growing more and more, there was a huge need for programmers.

The search for the perfect software developer

The big companies wanted to attract all kinds of people, and for everybody to see software development as a real job possibility. There were a lot of job openings that were impossible to fill up. The viewpoint of what makes a great developer also started to shift. More and more people started to believe that you needed a certain amount of intelligence and certain personality traits to be able to become a software engineer.

This is why companies started looking for people that had ‘the right personality' to become a software developer, instead of basing their decisions on the willingness and motivation of potential new workers.

In the mid of 1960s two male psychologists called William Connan and Dallis Perry would research what kind of people would enjoy this new profession for one of the biggest tech companies in the USA at the time. They profiled almost 1400 programmers, of whom 186 were women. From the survey data they concluded two things; the first thing was that software developers enjoy solving puzzles, which in this profession would still to this day make sense. The other one is that software developers don’t like people. They don’t enjoy spending time with others.

This research would become very widespread among companies, clubs, and universities.

How women got profiled out

This research would lead to women getting profiled out a lot of the time. Now, why was this?

Society views shy or introverted men and women differently. Women get taught from a young age to be social and out there so that they don’t get pity or bullied. Men on the other hand get seen as mysterious, cool, and maybe even something to look up to if they’re more antisocial. Look at Beethoven or Tesla for example.

Another thing is that antisocial personality disorders are more often seen in men, for example, autism favors men by 1 on 3, not even mentioning that women with autism often get misdiagnosed or never diagnosed at all. If you select people on the ‘antisocial nerd’ stereotype, you’re more likely to select a man.

Men would get selected for a job more often, leaving women that applied to miss out on jobs. Some women that were already working in the software field felt like they didn’t belong there anymore after they saw the change in the field shifting to a preference towards men.

The heavy decline in the 1980s

The year that it really took a turn for the worse was in the history books in 1984. 1984 is known as the year when ‘women left coding’. There was a peak in women obtaining Computer Science degrees this year in the United States, in the following 2 and a half decades it would only decline.

Why the decline happened

There was no big change the universities made to make this happen. There was no quota for women, there was no anti-women propaganda. The biggest issue that caused this to happen was marketing. In the ‘80s personal computers were booming, and corporate America decided that they should advertise these personal computers and the video games that come with them to boys and men. By this time, the women that were still working in tech were not the majority anymore, it wasn’t even anything near 50/50 so there was more money opportunity in advertising to men. A lot of technology commercials from the 1980s only have men or boys in them and if there are women in them, they are either oversexualized or made fun of. The fact that these men or boys were portrayed as white, nerdy, and shy didn’t help either.

The result of it all

The result of this kind of advertising was that young girls didn’t get a PC as a young kid as often as boys did. This caused women later on in life to be less interested in technology and computers. The declining amount of representation in the field also caused women to have internal-sexism issues, even if they were interested in tech they would not try to get into it because it’s a ‘man’s job’ causing the number of women in Computer Science to decline even more.

Women were also already a step behind men if they signed up for Computer Science, because men often already started coding or figuring out computers from a younger age. They would get better grades and have a way easier time than women would experience.

From this point on the field that once was dominated by women would be seen as a man’s world.

Women in tech in the 21st century

Women in 2022 are still the minority but stuff is getting better thanks to the internet and social media. Software development can be learned online for free now and there is more representation for minority groups, like people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and women in tech. There are also special scholarships, events, and user groups for all these under-represented people in tech.

I already hear some people saying ‘but Lou, we need equality. All this special stuff for women or people of color shouldn’t be needed!’ You’re right, but as long as the working field isn’t 50/50, you shouldn’t expect people to stay still and do nothing about it.

another comment I hear often is ‘people should just do what they like’. Also yes but it isn’t that easy. Just like people are often friends with people that look or act like them, people also hire people that look or act like them. If a company is made up of white men, women often don’t stand a chance. Not only that, but if you have to sit in a classroom full of men or full of women, you will often pick the classroom with the gender you belong to because that’s human nature. It isn’t as simple as just picking what you like if you don’t feel welcomed or you don’t feel like you belong there.

Are you a woman in tech looking for resources? Check out this Github Repository by Fempire

That’s a wrap!

This is a blog post I’ve been working on for a while now and this topic is very close to my heart. As a woman in tech, especially in my teen years, I experienced I wasn’t always accepted everywhere because it’s so male-dominated. I wanted to figure out what happened between the moment that we started building huge computers until today.

The sources for anyone interested:

Brotopia by Emily Chang

The Computer Boys Take Over by Nathan L. Ensmenger

The Secret History of Women in Coding by the New York Times

When Women Stopped Coding by by NPR

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed this social history class. See you in the next one!

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