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Women and Computers

Written by Kim van Alkemade

When you think back on the development of computer programming in the United States, what comes to mind?

When you think back on the development of computer programming in the United States, is the image that comes to your mind that of a young, white guy, kind of like Matthew Broderick in the movie War Games? Well, if you were asked this question before the 1980s, it’s more likely the image you’d conjure would be of a woman, like this computer operator from the 1964 IBM promotional movie, “Once Upon a Punched Card.”

In his 2019 article “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” Clive Thompson reminds us that Lady Ida Lovelace “wrote what is often regarded as the first computer program in history,” and that “pioneering programmer Grace Hopper is frequently credited with creating the first ‘compiler,’ a program that lets users create programming languages that more closely resemble regular written words.” In 1960, one in four computer programmers in the United States were women; by 1984, women were earning over 37% of the degrees in computer and information sciences.

I saw evidence of the early involvement of women in computer programming in the above photograph of a coding class being taught by Erik Hankam at the IBM Watson Laboratory on the campus of Columbia University. Notice the woman seated in the front row of the class? Though outnumbered by men, she is there—a visual inspiration for my character Rita Klein, who attends a summer computing class at the Watson Laboratory in 1959.

Indeed, women in coding were so prevalent that in her 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine article “The Computer Girls,” Lois Mandel wrote that “Every company that makes or uses computers hires women to program them. If a girl is qualified, she’s got the job. There’s no sex discrimination in hiring. The girl with a college degree in math, physics or engineering can start of her computing career—as a trainee—at eight thousand dollars a year.

What, then, sparked the steep decline in the numbers of women in coding we see today? Thompson writes that in 1985, the first generation of young men who’d had the opportunity to play around with personal computers at home showed up for college already familiar with programming. As girls increasingly got the message both at home and at school that “computers were for boys,” a “cultural schism” emerged that made women doubt their ability to learn computer programming. During the 1980s, popular culture doubled down on the image of a computer nerd as a boy genius, reinforcing the assumption that computing was a male domain. Thompson writes that, by the end of the decade, the pioneering work of women in coding was largely forgotten.

I see stark evidence of this attitude shift in these two different captions for the exact same photograph. In Thompson’s article, the caption simply reads, “Computer operators with an Eniac.” In his 2007 textbook The World: A History, author Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s caption opines that, “The choice of female programmers was presumably dictated by the public relations objectives of this photograph.” As he provides no support for his presumption that the photograph has a “public relations objective,” it seems clear that his own bias informs his assumption that these women have been included merely to entice a male viewer—a bias he then passes on to the college students using his textbook.

My novel COUNTING LOST STARS reminds the reader that women have always had an important and pioneering role in the development of computer technology—whether as programmers, like Rita Klein, or, in the case of my character Cornelia Vogel, as a punch card computer operator who learns to her horror how the Nazis are using information technology to organize the Holocaust.