When Women Ruled Com­put­ing —

Inc. (USA) - - INNOVATE -

Pro­gram­ming be­gan as a fe­male-friendly ca­reer: The dawn of com­put­ers co­in­cided with World War II, re­quir­ing work­ers who wouldn’t be drafted. Women in tech as­cended— un­til the ar­rival of the per­sonal com­puter

1941- 45

The first dig­i­tal com­put­ers are built for wartime pur­poses, in­clud­ing Eniac (pic­tured), the first fully elec­tronic Amer­i­can com­puter, which in 1946 is orig­i­nally pro­grammed by six women re­cruited by the Army. Oth­ers in­clude Great Bri­tain’s Colos­sus ma­chines at Bletch­ley Park—which are op­er­ated by women in the Bri­tish Navy, also known as Wrens.


Movie star Hedy Lamarr, a de­sign-ob­sessed in­ven­tor in her spare time, patents a tech­nol­ogy that is later used to make U.S. mis­siles un­de­tectable dur­ing the Cold War—and for the spread-spec­trum com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy that makes mod­ern Wi-Fi and cell phones work.


Af­ter World War II, as the com­mer­cial de­mand for com­put­ers and their pro­gram­mers ramps up, em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for women in­crease. “There was no pre­ex­ist­ing male work force to push them out,” Janet Ab­bate

writes in Re­cod­ing Gen­der: Women’s Chang­ing Par­tic­i­pa­tion in Com­put­ing. “Most of the sci­ences were closed to them,” Ab­bate tells Inc., “but com­put­ing seemed wide open.”


The cre­ators of the Eniac, who had started the civil­ian com­put­ing com­pany that de­vel­oped the Uni­vac ma­chine, hire Grace Hop­per as se­nior math­e­ma­ti­cian. She starts devel­op­ing the first com­puter lan­guages, in­clud­ing the Cobol pro­gram­ming lan­guage.


Com­pa­nies in­creas­ingly “em­ploy only women” or “a high per­cent­age of women” in their com­put­ing groups, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. De­part­ment of La­bor. This is the re­sult of cor­po­rate Amer­ica’s need­ing peo­ple to write the code and move the cards in big punch-card-op­er­ated ma­chines, so it hires women with and with­out col­lege de­grees who can pick up the job quickly.


This is the age of the Com­puter Girls,” de­clares Cos­mopoli­tan magazine. A year later, IBM gears this re­cruit­ing ad to­ward women.


Neil Arm­strong walks on the moon, a mis­sion made pos­si­ble by the cal­cu­la­tions of women math­e­ma­ti­cians and sys­tems en­gi­neers such as Kather­ine John­son (left) and Mar­garet Hamil­ton, who de­vel­oped the Apollo space­craft’s on­board flight pro­gram, in­vent­ing the mod­ern con­cept of “soft­ware” in the process.

1971- 2015

The ad­vent of the per­sonal com­puter, paired with the emer­gence of “geek” cul­ture in the late 1970s, starts to shift per­cep­tions, prop­a­gat­ing prej­u­dices that fe­males aren’t good at math and sci­ence. Once con­sid­ered unglam­orous cler­i­cal work, com­puter pro­gram­ming soon be­comes cov­eted, highly skilled la­bor.

As tech be­comes a ma­jor in­dus­try and the num­ber of peo­ple study­ing com­puter sci­ence in­creases, the gulf be­tween men and women re­ceiv­ing de­grees widens.





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