gender and computer science

Picking up on a topic we’ve covered before, there’s a nice article about how computer programming was regendered from female to male. From the website of Stanford’s Clayman Institute:

As historian Nathan Ensmenger explained to a Stanford audience, as late as the 1960s many people perceived computer programming as a natural career choice for savvy young women. Even the trend-spotters at Cosmopolitan Magazine urged their fashionable female readership to consider careers in programming. In an article titled “The Computer Girls,” the magazine described the field as offering better job opportunities for women than many other professional careers. As computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper told a reporter, programming was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.” James Adams, the director of education for the Association for Computing Machinery, agreed: “I don’t know of any other field, outside of teaching, where there’s as much opportunity for a woman.”

But later:

In 1967, despite the optimistic tone of Cosmopolitan’s “Computer Girls” article, the programming profession was already becoming masculinized. Male computer programmers sought to increase the prestige of their field, through creating professional associations, through erecting educational requirements for programming careers, and through discouraging the hiring of women. Increasingly, computer industry ad campaigns linked women staffers to human error and inefficiency.

Interesting reading for students of the professions.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 27, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, professions

2 Responses

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  1. I think I’ve seen this anecdote before, and it’s interesting, but Lee Jussim’s research shows that the self-fulfilling prophecy effect of stereotypes is actually pretty weak. One of the core issues seems to be why the gender gap disappeared in some places but not others. Biology, public health, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, law, and accounting were all stereotypically male fields about 75 years ago, to the best of my knowledge. But the gender ratio in those fields today seems quite different from the ratio in physics, computer science, and math.


    Chris M

    August 27, 2013 at 8:42 pm

  2. I also find this interesting, but we can’t ignore the complete change in the nature of computer programming during this period. In the 1950s and 1960s programs were mostly entered manually, using punch cards and paper tape. This type of work was more repetitive and boring than skilled, was similar to secretarial work, and was certainly prone to human error. Women at that time were not doing computer programming in the sense we think of it today, where we type a program directly into a computer; they were, in essence, the computers themselves. As the industry became automated in the late 1960s and thus more skilled and less tedious, it also become gendered as male.

    The industry ads linking women staffers to human and error and inefficiency were actually correct. When done by hand, as women were doing, punch cards were prone to human error and an error meant a card had to be thrown out and changed. With automated programs and text editors (which were the jobs that men were taking), human error and inefficiency were mitigated.

    This discussion must include technological advancement as a key variable driving this change.



    August 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm

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