This conversation has become a regular feature of my working life. Most people I speak to aren’t aware of women’s historically pioneering involvement in tech, so they assume the gender gap is caused by a lack of interest or desire by women in the field. But history tells a very different story.
I’ve decided to tell this story here in the hope of bringing enlightenment en masse. If you’ve ever wondered how the “brogrammer” stereotype came to exist and the hidden true story behind the vast gender gap in software engineering, then read on. Oh and make a point of watching the film “Hidden Figures” too.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
Whether depicted through literature or film, the likeable computer geek character has been overwhelmingly adopted by men. Let’s not forget James Damore – an ex-engineer at Google and his 10-page memo claiming men are biologically more suited to coding than women.
Damore drew his argument from Evolutionary Psychology and the Big 5 personality traits, stating the psychological differences between men and women contribute to the subsequent representation in tech. But if ‘biological differences’ are really to blame, why does history say otherwise?
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and following World War II, coding was predominantly done by women. Yes, you read that right. In fact, the first-ever algorithm intended to be executed by a computer-based system was designed by young mathematician Ada Lovelace in 1833- she was a pioneer in the field. Yep, a woman.
However, this sector which was largely built and operated by women went from an almost 50/50 gender split down to 37% by 1986. The number of female computer science majors continued to decline, from 36% to just 18% by 2015. Currently, women account for only 25% of the total computer-science workforce.
Interestingly enough, the perception of programmers has evolved considerably over time, and many believe it’s this perception that has stood in the way of achieving a more diverse and inclusive industry. But what caused the major drop-off in the 1980s? How did such a stereotype form? Is the answer simply “guys are more interested in computers”?
Well for starters, aptitude and personality tests instituted for recruiting purposes gave men a significant advantage. At that time, the education system favoured men wishing to pursue a career in computer-science-related fields. As personal computers began to enter the home, marketing strategies were designed and geared towards young men. Such profiles and stereotypes slowly but surely cemented the development of the gender gap in today’s tech sector.
RIGHT THEN, LET’S BREAK THIS DOWN IN MORE DETAIL…
FROM “COMPUTER GIRLS” TO “BROGRAMMERS”
When we examine the evolution of tech’s gender stereotype, it appears few people are aware of the origins of computer programming. So why is this crucial information often left out of the narrative?
Today, the stereotypical picture of a programmer is usually a young, white, socially-awkward male wearing jeans and a hoodie – not a woman in heels and a pencil skirt. But, throughout the 60s, this was the programmer norm. In 1967, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article titled “The Computer Girls” – recommending their readers pursue a computer programming career. By 1985, 38% of computer science jobs were held by women. This piece of precious Cosmo history shows career opportunities for women in computer programming were in high demand.
At the time, women were a dominant force in the industry. The title of the Cosmo article is a reference to ENIAC’s “Computer Girls”. ENIAC is considered to be one of the first electronic, digital computers. While the word “programmer” was yet to exist, the women working with ENIAC were among the first-ever programmers.
These women were tasked with the “set up” of the system and performing “plans of computation”. More notably, they were in charge of teaching the machine to calculate the trajectories of weapons that would later be used by soldiers in the field. Unfortunately, the six women, whose software work was critical to ENIAC’s operation and performance, did not receive an invitation to the celebratory dinner for the completion of ENIAC. Read that again and let that sink in…
Of course, computers in those days looked drastically different to the lightweight and compact computers we use today. Much like plugging cables into a telephone switchboard, ENIAC ‘set up’ was a highly mechanical process. The work itself was seen as handicraft as opposed to intellectual. For this reason, the women operating the system were known as ‘operators’ or ‘coders’. In fact, in his book ‘The Computer Boys Take Over’, University Professor – Nathan Ensmenger, argues the term ‘coder’ was largely associated with the female gender. So much so that for decades to come, male programmers actively avoided using it.
As Mar Hicks argues in her book – ‘Programmed Inequality’, women during the second world war right through to the mid-60s, were the largest technically trained workforce of the computing industry. They were in charge of managing and operating room-sized electromechanical computers that cracked codes and formulated military logistics. Women then went on to work for civil service departments – gathering data and handling software. According to Hicks – “It was viewed as unskilled, highly feminised work”, where “Women were seen as an easy, tractable labour force for jobs that were critical and yet simultaneously devalued”.
While men specialised in hardware engineering – building circuits and machinery – women were in charge of building software. However, with the onset of the Internet Age from the late 1960s and through the 70s and 80s, this began to change. Once companies saw the potential for software to change the game, we saw a shift in demand for skilled work. The only problem was, there was no concrete understanding of what skills were necessary for this “new” field. So programming was essentially seen as somewhat of a ‘black art’, and companies started to believe programmers were ‘born, not made’.
At the time, almost every computer had their own unique way of operating. Demand for computer power and software was rising, but the capabilities of software developers were limited. For industry giants, there was one simple answer and it involved recruiting programmers through the use of aptitude tests. The tests were designed to filter for traits that related to analytical thinking and abstract reasoning.
According to Ensmenger, by 1962 a whopping 80% of businesses had begun using aptitude tests as a means of hiring skilled programmers. Half of which used IBM’s industry-standard PAT (Programmer Aptitude Test). In 1967 alone, More than 700,000 individuals had taken the PAT. The test had become the gateway for budding programmers interested in pursuing a career in the field.
As the demand for programmers continued to increase, companies soon realised aptitude tests were not enough to identify specific personality profiles that make for motivated and effective programmers. One such company was System Development Corp (SDC), which was hired by IBM in the 50s to work on the SAGE – one of the biggest software projects of the time. By 1961, SDC had hired and trained close to 8000 US programmers.
To streamline their recruiting process, SDC had commissioned two psychologists, William M. Cannon and Dallas K. Perry, to pinpoint a “vocational interest scale” for programmers. In 1966, Cannon and Perry interviewed 1,400 engineers (1,200 being men) and developed a personality profile to predict the best potential candidates. What they found bore a resemblance to other vocational profiles for chemistry and engineering. However, there was one notable characteristic attributed to programmers: Disinterest in people.
Given their largely male-dominated test group, Cannon and Perry’s assessment disproportionately identified men as the ideal candidates for computer programming jobs.
In particular, the test tended to eliminate extroverts and people who have empathy for others. Two common traits that were stereotypically attributed to women. So it’s no surprise that this misguided study laid the foundations for the ensuing male anti-social coder stereotype.
By the late 1960s, the ‘soft work’ that had been largely dominated by women evolved into modern software, and the importance of women decreased. Once the industry grew more lucrative and it became clear that those who knew how to utilise software were at an advantage, female programmers lost out despite having both extensive experience and the requisite skills.
SDC’s programmer profile came to shape industry demographics for decades. It was this pivotal study that changed the way companies recruited and trained programmers, and impacted the industry ability to be diverse and inclusive ever after. The question is, do we continue to accept that “real programmers” are meant to look like this?
“TECHNOLOGY IS FOR BOYS, NOT GIRLS”
So as time went on and the industry continued to turn a profit, male executives developed hiring criteria and workplace cultures that systematically sidelined women. Rather than creating a space that empowered women, the education system and business structures helped to reinforce masculine biases and patriarchal norms.
In schools and universities, boys were encouraged to study maths and engineering, while girls stuck to the social sciences. Not to mention, by the early-mid-1980’s, video game consoles and personal computers hit the market, and were marketed as “boys toys”.
Fast-forward to today and we still hear the same false messaging being thrown around where: “technology is designed for boys, not girls”. Damore is a prime example of this outdated and ill-informed viewpoint and thanks to his memo, it’s clear that some still choose to think this way.
PROGRESS STILL ISN’T REFLECTED IN TODAY’S TECH GENDER MIX
Clearly, our history won’t change until women are better represented, supported and respected in the industry. While we’re still a long way from perfect, tech companies are now starting to recognise the value of gender diversity in teams. If the industry fails to act, stereotypes will persist in what should be one of the most progressive, agile and innovative sectors of all.
While the efforts mentioned above were critical components leading to women being pushed out of the tech industry, those efforts alone do not account for the dramatic drop in women pursuing computer-science careers. But what all these factors do show us, is that biology never was and never will be the real reason for today’s gender gap in tech.
Emma Jones is the Founder and CEO of Project F,
helping progressive companies achieve gender balanced technology teams and leadership.