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When Computer Programming Was Women's Work

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Grace Hopper with UNIVAC 1

Grace Hopper, shown with UNIVAC 1, told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1967 that computer programming could be women's work.

Credit: Flickr

What has changed in the world of computer programming for women since 1967? Nearly thirty-five years ago, 11% of computer science majors were women. The portion of women earning computer science degrees continued to rise steadily, reaching its peak (37%) in 1984. Then, over the next two decades, women steadily left the computer science field, just as their numbers were increasing steadily across all other science, technology, engineering, and math fields. By 2006, the portion of women in computer science had dropped back to 20%. By looking back at an older era when women embraced computer science, it may be possible to understand how to reverse this trend and encourage more women to explore computer science as a career.

While the first computer "keypunch" jobs for women 35 years ago had no real prospect of advancement, women were soon able to enter directly into the ranks of programmers and systems analysts. The industry faced a dire shortage in programmers and systems analysts, roles that involved designing programming instructions. Like many industries during World War II, computer science needed new talent and undergraduate women began to flock to computer science classes. In addition, many academic computer science programs were first housed not in science or engineering divisions, but within liberal arts colleges, where women had made cultural inroads. Women were less likely to consider computer science a "science" that was off limits to their exploration. Men had not yet entered computer science in significant numbers. They, too, were just beginning to respond to industry demand and had yet to dominate the field. Computer science was a new frontier for women in which the social and professional rules were still to be determined.

Is it possible that, like in the 1960s, industry demand for programmers might be fueling renewed interest among women in computer science? Young women today face far fewer deterrents than their predecessors did in the 1960s and 1980s. Universities have made an effort to recruit more young women into computer science through high school outreach programs, by providing more networking opportunities for undergraduates, and by revamping the curriculum to deemphasize programming experience before college. At the undergraduate level, however, most women still enter into introductory courses with less experience than their male counterparts. And because female computer science majors are few and far between, and because they tend to make friends outside their major, the lack of personal friendships that help inform and support early professional choices still puts women at a disadvantage. Recruiters at top companies also make it less welcoming for women to enter the field through job descriptions that are overly technical. More and more young women want in and they should have access. Decades ago, well-paid professional women programmed with passion and imagination alongside men who welcomed them as peers.

From The Washington Post
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