How women started but got crowded out of the computing revolution…

One just blogged about women stockbrokers in NYSE.

Then was reading this article by Tamal Bandypadhyaya on how with each subsequent data, men are being seperated from boys in Indian banking. To this Bindu Ananth  of IFMR Trust tweeted and rightly so : “Given that a majority of banking assets are managed by women CEOs, the title needs editing”. Indeed!

As one finished Tamal’s piece, popped another piece from Stephen Mihm in Bloomberg View.

He writes how computing or software coding was basically started by women and then eventually monopolised by men.

Why aren’t there more female software developers in Silicon Valley? James Damore, the Google engineer fired for criticizing the company’s diversity program, believes that it’s all about “innate dispositional differences” that leave women trailing men.

He’s wrong. In fact, at the dawn of the computing revolution women, not men, dominated software programming. The story of how software became reconstructed as a guy’s job makes clear that the scarcity of female programmers today has nothing at all to do with biology.

Who wrote the first bit of computer code? That honor arguably belongs to Ada Lovelace, the controversial daughter of the poet Lord Byron. When the English mathematician Charles Babbage designed a forerunner of the modern computer that he dubbed an “Analytical Engine,” Lovelace recognized that the all-powerful machine could do more than calculate; it could be programmed to run a self-contained series of actions, with the results of each step determining the next step. Her notes on this are widely considered to be the first computer program.

This division of labor — the man in charge of the hardware, the woman playing with software — remained the norm for the founding generation of real computers. In 1943, an all-male team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania began building ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer in the U.S. When it came time to hire programmers, they selected six people, all women. Men worked with machines; women programmed them.

“We didn’t think we should spend our time worrying about figuring out programming methods,” one of ENIAC’s architects later recalled. “There would be time enough to worry about those things later.” It fell to the women to worry about them, and this original team of women made many signal contributions, effectively inventing the field of computer programming. But programming had no cachet or notoriety; it certainly wasn’t seen as inspiring work, as historian Janet Abbate’s account of this era makes clear.

Sexist stereotypes are used today to justify not hiring women programmers, but in the early years of the computer revolution, it was precisely the opposite — and not without the encouragement of women as well. Early managers became convinced that women alone had the skills to succeed as programmers. Still, it was considered glorified clerical work.

Wow.. had no idea about this.

How did men take over? By deception!

In fact, men had began to recognize that programming was the most important job in the new information economy. In order to elevate the importance of their work, the first generation of male programmers began crafting a professional identity that effectively excluded women. As historian Nathan Ensmenger has observed, “computer programming was gradually and deliberately transformed into a high-status, scientific, and masculine discipline.”

The now-familiar stereotype of the male programmer began to form at that time. Men from established fields like physics, mathematics and electrical engineering making the leap to a new one that had no professional identity, no professional organizations, and no means of screening potential members. They set out to elevate programming to a science.

By the mid-1960s, that led to the rising influence of professional societies for programmers, including the Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM. The leadership of these groups skewed heavily toward men, and they began building barriers to entry in the field that put women of this earlier era at a distinct disadvantage, particularly a requirement for advanced degrees.

In addition, growing numbers of companies eager to hire programmers began administering aptitude and personality tests to find the right employees. The tests proved next to useless in predicting whether a person made a good programmer. “In every case,” the ACM’s own authority on the subject wrote, the correlation between test scores and future performance “was not significantly different than zero.” But they remained in widespread use in most major corporations, and when men scored higher on these tests, they got the jobs, not women. In the process, the “computer boys,” as the press dubbed them, took over.

He also writes how the image of a programmer got built which I leave to the reader.


The takeover was near complete as soon jobs were advertised only for men:

While companies seeking programmers had previously sought out women as well as men, by the late 1960s the pitch to potential employees had changed. Pretty typical was an advertisement that IBM ran in 1969. It asked potential programmers whether they had the qualities to cut it as a programmer. But what really stood out was the question emblazoned at the top of the advertisement: “Are YOU the man to command electronic giants?”

This bias remains alive and well. What’s ironic, though, is that it flies in the face of the history of computing. Women dominated programming at one time, but got pushed aside once men discovered the field’s importance. That messy history, not simple biology, accounts for the gender imbalance bedeviling Silicon Valley.

Just as in the above pieces, we forget both stock broking and banking have had women players. But we think of them mainly as profession of, for and by men. Similarly, computer programming has become just a male field despite being pioneered by females.

Amazing history and stereotyping…


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