How Women Got Crowded Out of the Computing Revolution

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. . . .

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.


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