By now, it has completely disappeared from the public consciousness that in the earlier decades after the advent of computers, programming was a female profession, and even in the 1970s and ‘80s, the gender gap wasn’t as huge as it is today.
In this article, we will show you the role of women in programming from the advent of computers until today.
The Role of Women Coders in IT in The Early 20th Century
The image of female telephone operators and typists remains in our historical memory. Still, somehow the fact that females were also programming and operating early computers doesn’t appear in our knowledge of technical development and newer technologies. You can find a detailed summary of the history of IT and women on Wikipedia.
Before computers, from the 1910s, women carried out a lot of calculation tasks that were needed in the banking sector, warfare, and other areas.
In World War I, women performed ballistic calculations. In the 1920s, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company employed women and engineers for calculation tasks. In the 1930s, the predecessor of NASA hired five women to process data from flight and wind tunnel tests.
Calculations done by hand were overthrown by the first electromechanical calculator in 1936, and fully electronic computers appeared in the early 1940s.
The design and construction of these room-sized computers that weighed tons was the job of male engineers, but the operation and programming of these early machines was a female job, and its prestige was far lower than that of engineers. You can read about this in more detail in an exciting article by History.com.
The Ratio of Women Programmers in the Late 20th Century and Now
The United States
The prestigious entertainment and fashion magazine, Cosmopolitan wrote an enthusiastic, encouraging article about women’s future in programming in an issue in 1967. Interestingly, the article quotes Grace Hopper, the amazingly innovative programmer who said, “Programming is like planning a dinner […] You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it.”
The goal of the statement is presumably to encourage women to take up programming, but it doesn’t show coding less stereotypically, e.g., as a complex and valuable task.
It is hard to find accurate statistics about how many female and male programmers were working in different decades since the number of IT graduates doesn’t exactly show how many people worked in that field. The opposite of this is true as well since not every IT graduate started working as a programmer, just like it is today.
In the early 1980s, 37% of IT graduates were women, and the majority of programmers were still women. Then came a turning point, and the number of women in IT schools and IT jobs decreased drastically. By the 2010s, about only 20% of all IT students were female, and this ratio applied to people working in the IT field as well.
Eurostat creates a detailed survey on the situation of the European labour market, employment rates and changes in the number of people working in different fields. The results of their in-depth research provide a number of interesting facts, not just for gender ratios.
Eurostat’s survey wasn’t aimed at programming as a profession but information and communications technology (ICT for short) as a whole. In Europe, 83.5% of ICT employees are men.
The number of women increased in this field (from 1,071,500 to 1,231,700), their ratio has still been decreasing in the past 10 years since the field is expanding so dynamically that this increase in numbers is not enough to change the ratio. In 2008, 22% of ICT employees were women, and by 2018, this percentage has decreased to 16.5% in the EU.
The data in 2008 showed more balanced gender ratios than the data today. This could be the effect of the Soviet era—for example, in Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania, the gender ratios were more balanced (65% male, 35% female). In the countries of the former Soviet bloc, it was common for women to have jobs other than what their traditional gender roles would suggest (for example, they recruited tractorist girls). In this blog article, the author states that when her mother started learning to program (in the 1970s, in the Soviet Union), her class was all women, and programming wasn’t considered a masculine job. In an article by BBC, we can also read about how they included women in computing since its development was an economic priority, and how they made learning engineering, programming and mathematics accessible for women.
Today, these countries are also closer to the European average. In the European Union, the ratio of female ICT experts in 2019 is highest in Bulgaria (28%) and lowest in Hungary (10.6%).
Females Paving The Way in The History of Programming
As we have mentioned before, starting from the 1910s, many women worked as “living computers” in telecommunications and warfare as operators and mathematicians. Processing data, statistical analysis, creating forecasts, operating the telephone network, and creating punch cards were usually women’s jobs between the two world wars, and during World War II.
The explosive development of IT can be largely attributed to World War II—the acceleration of code decryption being one of the most important driving forces behind it. The German encryption process, Enigma, and its decryption have been the topic of many pieces of art, more recently the movie The Imitation Game, for example. In Bletchley Park, Great Britain, the most excellent mathematicians worked together to create a process that can continuously decrypt the daily-changing secret code.
The movie made Joan Clarke famous, but she wasn’t the only female mathematician in Bletchley Park. Clarke worked with Alan Turing on Bombe—the electromechanical tool that cracked Enigma. This new device was a precursor to computers and its testing operator was also a female—Joyce Aylard. Other female decryption specialists in Bletchley Park were Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever, Ruth Briggs and Kerry Howard.
The six-member team responsible for programming the first general-purpose computer, ENIAC was made up entirely of women. The members of this revolutionary team were mathematicians Marlyn Meltzer, Betty Holberton, Kathleen Antonelli, Ruth Teitelbaum, Jean Bartik and Frances Spence in 1944.
Their teacher and mentor had also been a woman, Adele Goldstine: she wrote the manual for programming ENIAC.
Programming Close to Human Languages
Grace Hopper created the first compiler in 1951 that could translate program code into a binary number system. With this compiler, we could create programming languages that were closer to human languages.
She also created the programming language COBOL (common business-oriented language) in 1959. The language was created more than 60 years ago but we still use it today.
The Apollo Project
Margaret Hamilton was the senior software engineer of the team that created the onboard software that helped people get to the Moon in the Apollo Project in 1965.
The picture of Hamilton where she stands next to a tower of books as tall as her has been seen all over the world. The thousands of pages are the source code and the documentation of the software that helped the Apollo spacecraft get to the Moon.
The list of female programmers goes on, but the few examples we gave can show us the important role women played during the first few decades of computers.
(In)Equality Between Genders
According to the facts above, we could think that equality between genders happened or at least started happening pretty early on in the world of IT. This, however, was not the case, unfortunately.
Women who did groundbreaking work by creating new processes did not always get the recognition their male coworkers got. The Wikipedia page Women in computing mentions that the female programming team of ENIAC was warned they would not be promoted into professional ratings which were only for men, and females got promoted less and were paid less than their male colleagues in the ‘60s as well.
The decryption process developed by Joan Clarke who played a key role in decrypting Enigma did not get named after her while methods developed by her male coworkers got named after them.
African-American women faced even worse discrimination and had to work even harder than white women. Injustices against black people are everywhere in the United States, and still, many were able to prove their talent and knowledge as programmers. However, they were separated into different teams. African-American women worked at NASA and on the ENIAC team, and the first black woman to get a doctorate in IT was Clarence Ellis in 1969. An example of discrimination was that after getting hired, African-American women had to complete courses they had already completed, but their coworkers did not.
In 1962, the famous magazine Datamation published an article that was intended to be humorous titled “How to Hire a Woman Programmer?” The article contained sharp remarks criticizing the appearance and femininity of female programmers. The article said that “woman programmers” were a little cross-eyed, their figure resembled a potato sack, etc. According to the article, when a female gets a job offer, she can’t make a decision and goes home to ask her mother about it.
In another article of the same magazine in 1970, there was an ad containing the following text: “We taught our data entry system to speak a new language: dumb blonde. If a girl can type, she can enter data on our system.[…]” The ad contains even more problematic statements like this one.
Despite all this, why was programming a primarily female job in the first few decades of computing? The mathematical and logical skills to be able to complete complex tasks were required but weren’t recognized. When hiring and training programmers, they held that programming was suitable for women because it was like cooking from a cookbook or knitting from a knitting pattern. So these “monotonous,” algorithmic tasks that can be solved step by step were close to “female thinking,” according to them.
Female programming teams were thought to be too gossipy, chatty, and inefficient, costing the company too much, although they were actually completing responsible and vital tasks. The Wisdom Daily quotes an ad from the 1960s which says that the work of female operators should be replaced by technological tools. The text says: “What has sixteen legs, eight waggly tongues and costs you at least $40,000 a year?” (The answer, of course, is a team of female programmers who were made out to be time-wasters, gossipers, and the sources of all problems.)
It is interesting to see how stereotypes about women lacking the necessary skills in complex and logical thinking (not being smart enough) and narratives about women having the skills but not conforming to the expectations of a female’s appearance (if she is smart enough, she does not look good) were both prevalent at the same time.
How Did Programming Become Male-Centric?
Another stereotype—that women chat too much or socialize too much—affected programming becoming a male profession. The image of the “ideal programmer” was formed, who is a bit antisocial, is only interested in the world of technology, prefers to be close to computers day and night, and trains himself in this field in his free time by reading, calculating, and thinking.
Despite the fact that many women were skilled mathematicians and IT experts, and despite women doing the most important ballistic and statistical calculations during the world wars, they started to get pushed out from the field.
What Steps Led to This?
After-school IT Clubs
As computers’ sizes decreased, making them more portable and therefore more accessible, they started to appear in high schools and universities. After-school clubs started where students could learn how computers work, so welding circuits, assembling parts, and basic programming entered the school environment.
According to an article by the New York Times, boys went to these clubs who got left out of the high schools’ social life that was centred around the sporting elite. These clubs consisted of “nerds/geeks” and—maybe unintentionally—another elite group formed, and exclusion started with it (The “cool” people stayed in the group, and those who weren’t “cool” got left out). Hence, girls and black and Latino boys soon found themselves in the minority.
Exclusion at Universities
When computers were only available in universities and research centres, women and men had similar chances to get into programming teams. No prior knowledge and experience were needed, and everyone could become a programmer who did good on admission tests and during training. They tested mostly formal logic, mathematical and pattern recognition skills, then they taught them programming during work.
Later, with PCs, computers and programming started to appear in households. Playing games and studying how computers work has become things that boys do. While females working in research centres did not rustle any feathers, playing with PC games, learning to program, and generally having computers at home did. Doing things like that instead of traditionally “girly activities” was tolerated less because of deeply ingrained social gender role expectations.
From the 1980s, this caused the inequality of opportunities and a larger gender gap. Universities now require prior knowledge and skills that girls can’t get easy access to because of their exclusion from clubs and not having PCs at home.
In the New York Times article we mentioned, they quoted a survey of Carnegie Mellon University students. The aim of the 4-year survey made with 100 students was to determine why women don’t really choose IT at university.
They found that male freshmen had better chances because of their computer at home, which they often shared with their father. In these families, traditional gender roles and expectations were reinforced: boys were praised and encouraged to use electrical equipment, while girls were sent back to play with their dolls or go to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, they suggested that if women had not been coding for years, they shouldn’t major in IT. According to them, a “real programmer” is always behind their screen and has programming experience from his teenage years. They succeeded in making women question if they could ever catch up with men.
Patricia Ordóñez of Hopkins University was a freshman in 1985—she had been a mathematical genius in high school but had almost no coding experience. This is how she remembers asking a question in her first class: “[The teacher] looked at me and said: ‘You should already know this!’ I thought I would never make it.” Ordóñez changed majors after that. Later, she learned to program at night school, then got her doctorate, and today, she is teaching programming at a university.
The film industry didn’t help us remember the female pioneers of programming either. Films published in the 1980s depicted something else entirely—that programming was for men. In these movies, the eccentric programming geniuses were always white males (e.g., Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Tron, WarGames).
How Do They Try to Balance The Gender Ratio in IT?
There are a growing number of examples around the world of organizations, companies, training centres, and associations supporting women’s participation in IT. One important area of this is training programmers, where they try to involve more and more women. For this to work, of course, we need programming as a profession to be attractive for women as well, and for social prejudices and gender roles to weaken.
Learning to program can be started anytime, but—as with any other skill—algorithmic thinking is easier to learn at a younger age when our brains are more open to accepting new thinking patterns. Childhood is also one of the most effective times for breaking down stereotypes and creating an accepting, open environment.
They already recognized this fact in teaching programming, so there are many options (e.g., camps, workshops, courses, e-learning materials, and games) where kids can learn programming. In order for girls not to feel excluded from this field and to encourage them to try themselves in the world of technology, they organize events especially for them.
It’s not just destroying stereotypical thinking and “luring” women to IT that is the key to balancing gender ratios. There are other issues that seem less spectacular but require complex solutions, like supporting women returning to work after having children, eliminating the glass ceiling phenomenon (when there are no legal barriers to promoting women, yet fewer women can get leadership roles), and so on. Fortunately, we can see efforts towards making this a reality.
There are places where they ensure equal ratios with a quota system (a predetermined number of female-male employees). In other places, they do not believe in this method. Instead, they try to create family-friendly workplaces, regular home office opportunities, and flexible working hours for mothers to have equal opportunities. In the American tech community Built In, we can read about what people in the United States do to create an open environment and break the glass ceiling.
Attitudes and efforts toward diversity are hard to measure accurately. According to a 2012 survey made in America, 40% of female employees are not satisfied with the time taken by the companies to make the gender ratio more balanced. Only 18% of male employees said the same.
Examples for Encouraging Women to Have Careers in IT
Vodafone “Code Like a Girl”
Many corporations stand for women and teenage girls learning to program. For example, Vodafone has an international project called “Code Like a Girl” which offers programming courses especially for women and organizes programming camps for girls.
Wild Code School
In the international project Wild Code School, 5 women could learn to program with a scholarship for free. This programming course aimed at women had campuses almost everywhere in Europe but the students can take online courses as well.
Green Fox Academy – Academy4Moms
Green Fox Academy offers a unique opportunity in the Hungarian market for mothers with young children who want to change careers when returning to work. Academy4Moms is a project where they support moms with nursery care and a schedule that is adjusted to their lifestyle so they can get into the world of IT and get a job after learning a new profession.
If you’d like to learn more about special programming courses only for ladies, in this article you’ll find 26 organizations who teach women coding around the world.
At CodeBerry Programming School, you can learn at your own pace, according to your own schedule, so moms can also join our courses. 35-40% of our students are women, and they join us with confidence. A helpful learning community and mentor team support their progress.
We hope it was inspiring to read about the history of pioneers in programming, and how it became a male-dominated job from a female profession. The path women had to take in the decades of the 20th century was paved with stereotypes and obstacles, and this can encourage us to rethink the role of women in IT.
If you feel motivated to become part of this always-evolving, fast-expanding field and want to learn to program, you can find more info about the first steps and other opportunities to develop your skills on our blog.