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A suitable job for a woman!

At the dawn of computing, the pioneers of programming (coding) and systems analysis were women; to such an extent that it was seen as ‘women’s work’ and was predictably considered low status, poorly paid and therefore rejected by most men!  From the post war period up to the 1960s, women were a critical, if unrecognised, undervalued and underrated element in the success of this new and growing industry.  Computer programming was perceived to be an exciting job for women and the numbers of women attending university to study computer science was growing.  Then the decline set in.  From the end of the 1960s the demographic was changing, then in 1984 women in computing and in particular women who chose computer science at university, appeared to ‘fall off a cliff’!

Why is it that in the 21st Century, despite the remarkable women who paved the way, there is an abiding belief that ‘girls don’t do tech’; that women are not suited to IT and in particular coding?  If we don’t start to understand the reasons for such an unmitigated reversal, we will never change the status quo?

In the beginning

The first of those remarkable women was Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron).  A mathematician, Ada worked closely with Charles Babbage (the father of computing) and is considered to be the architect of scientific computing and the first computer programmer.  In the late 1800’s Lovelace identified that Babbage’s machine could be programmed with a code to calculate Bernoulli numbers.  This is recognised as the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine and consequently the first computer program.  Not only that, her vision predicted what would become the multi-purpose functionality of the modern computer; whilst the inventor Babbage, thought that the use of his machines would be confined to numerical calculations.

The trail blazers

Moving forward in the history of IT to the 1940s, we happen upon another remarkable woman, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper; a pioneer of computer and programming language development.  During her 44 year career, she lead the hypothesis that computers could be programmed in languages written in English rather than using numerical codes.  In 1952 she created the first compiler, paving the way for the development of programming languages in English.  Her most notable legacy is COBOL, a language still in use today.

What do CompInc , Vaughan Programming Services and Freelance Programmers, companies all founded between 1957 and 1962 have in common?  They were some of the earliest Software Houses in the world, they were in their time all highly successful and were all founded by women.  This at a time when Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Paul Allen were very young boys and Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, not even a twinkle in their parent’s eyes.

How did ‘women’s work’ become a job for the boys?

As the power and importance of computing became evident, suddenly this low-paid and undervalued women’s work became of interest to men!  The female pioneers who had written, tested and implemented the first computer programs on the earliest computers, were perniciously side lined, whilst men took over the industry; increasing the prestige and value of the work – e.g. they were being paid more and had better job titles for doing the same work as the women they replaced.  The scene was set for the structural inequality in the industry that persists to this day.

In computing, when you are described as technical, it specifically means someone who can write code (programme).  As we know, in the past most of that technical expertise was held by women.  Today in contrast, most of the successful women in computing have a business rather than a technical background – e.g. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki.  Whilst we must laud their success in getting to the top of some of computing’s most influential companies, it cannot be a coincidence that the ‘founders’ of these companies and ergo the world’s wealthiest individuals, are men and in particular men who have a degree in computer science and who know how to code.  To encourage the next generation of girls to accept that computer science is not just for boys, we need to change the perception that ‘girl’s don’t do tech’ and the first step is for there to be more technical role models like IBM’s Ginni Rometti.

Despite the history, getting girls and women back into technical computing jobs has been an uphill struggle for most of the last 36 or so years.  Whilst the original reason for the dearth of women was clearly sexism, the reason the situation still persists is not so clear cut.  Let’s explore further how a ‘suitable job for a woman’ became ‘a desirable job for a man’?  Not just a man, but a particular type of a man!

The stereotypical computer geek

When you think of computer programmers and systems analysts, what image springs to mind?  It definitely isn’t a conservatively dressed woman from the 1950s or 60s, it is inevitably a man.  Generally it is a specific type of man, a young man in a hoodie, permanently hunched in front of a computer screen, typing away at incredible speed and talking constantly in acronyms.  A guy who is totally absorbed in the technology to the exclusion of all else – the guy who has limited communications skills, the guy who plays computer games in his spare time and lives on takeaway Pizza.  As with all stereotypes, it contains an element of truth, which is not the most aspirational image for young women.

Whilst all stereotypes can and should be challenged, the issue with this one is that it has created a self fulfilling prophecy that persists to this day.  During the 1960s, as the forced change from female to male technologists was taking place, as part of the recruitment process, the industry became heavily reliant on unscientific and gender compromised aptitude tests and personality profiles.  The already pervasive idea of what a computer programmer was like (a bearded eccentric) was intrinsic to the tests, creating a convenient bias against recruiting women.  Whilst these tests are no longer in use, this image of ‘people who code’ still persists and remains a significant discouragement to women, as they perceive that they will be marginalised, belittled and feel uncomfortable and out of place in such an environment.

Toys for boys

A further hypothesis for the decline in women taking computer science degrees is the advent of personal computers.  Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, technology was progressing and personal (albeit primitive) computers were becoming more available and affordable to the general public.  However, these were initially little more than toys and in particular toys that were identified as being entertaining and educational for ‘boys’ and were marketed accordingly.  Many women from that time have an abiding memory of this ‘new gadget’ being confined to their brother’s bedroom and unavailable to them.  Around the same time Hollywood was producing films like Tron (1982) and Weird Science (1985), which featured as heroes our stereotypical male computer geek genius, further perpetuating the ‘boy’s toys’ and ‘girl’s don’t do tech’ narrative.

This subliminal message created an extra barrier to young women choosing to take up computer science.  Those who despite everything took the decision to do so, found themselves at a disadvantage right from the start.  Their male counterparts were arriving at university, having already been exposed to computers and computer programming.  They however, were more likely to be starting from scratch, leaving them feeling at best discouraged and at worst inadequate, resulting in many abandoning their course for something different.

This was the 1980s and the statistics clearly demonstration that from 1984 on, female enrolment in computer science degrees plummeted, a situation that has still not recovered; in the UK in 2017/ 18 only 19% of those taking a computer science degree were women.  Even if women do take and successfully achieve a good degree, it is just the first of many hurdles they have to overcome.

Recruitment bias excludes women from male dominated professions

The next hurdle is recruitment bias – the inclination for people to hire in their own image.  To hire someone they perceive to be the best cultural fit, to hire people who are like those they already work with.  This predictably has the effect of excluding women from male dominated professions – ergo, male applicants are significantly (even if subconsciously) favoured over female ones.

If women do leap the recruitment bias hurdle, the next one is not that far ahead.  Male dominated cultures are still not doing enough to nurture and retain their female talent – although there are some ‘green shoots’ of progress.  According to the most recent statistics, 56% of women working in technology are dropping out before they reach their full potential.  Women often have smaller offices, are rewarded less, and have lower wages.  On average, female software developers earn 20% less than their male counterparts.

Unless more is done to change the status quo, it makes the probability of having successful, female technical role models, as a beacon for the next generation of female computer scientists, increasingly unlikely.

The final hurdle

Last but by no means least; the industry has made it difficult to combine having a tech career with motherhood.  Male dominated companies fail to prioritise the needs of women and particularly the needs of mothers.  Maternity leave is determined by law, but accessible childcare and the macho culture of long hours, makes life very difficult for mothers.  Although this is starting to change, as companies are becoming more open to flexi-time and/ or working from home.

Why does it matter?

This not just a tragedy for young, talented and passionate young women, it is a disaster for the future of society and technology.  How can devices and programs be developed that are suitable for everyone, if not everyone is involved in their creation?  Half the population of the world are women, so it’s only logical that their needs, wants and desires should be taken into consideration when developing technology – if for no other reason than economic imperative.  This will not happen if women are not directly involved.

Gender diversity makes economic sense

Recent studies by Morgan Stanley, McKinsey, Microsoft and others indicate that companies with increased gender diversity have increased ROI.  For example, McKinsey reports that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform against industry medians.  So if revenue and profitability are important to a business, then more gender diversity is critical.  The technology industry needs to recruit and retain more women, if it wants to produce technology suitable for the whole population as well as increase performance and profit.

Thankfully, much more focus is now being put into the next generation of technologists, with an emphasis on making sure there is greater gender equality.  Achieving this means more than just getting girls into computer science.  We need flexible working arrangements, more women in leadership roles and more encouragement at an early age for girls (and boys) to ‘follow their dreams’.

Go for it!

Come on sisters, our mothers and grandmothers knew they could ‘do tech’.  Be part of the vanguard forcing a change in the demographic of today’s technology industries.

If you love technology, go for it; get yourself qualified.  When we come out of this Covid-19 recession, because there is a latent underlying shortage of good people in the industry, computing and technology will need more people more quickly.  If you are or have in the past been interested in working in this industry, you might like to visit:

Open University Computing and IT

UCAS Online Learning


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