Today it's almost assumed that computer science is a field set aside for nerdy men. Writing at the blog of the programming firm Fog Creek Software, Anna Lewis, the firm's recruiting director, says it isn't so. In fact, in 1987, 42% of American programmers were women -- and, for a period, programming was even considered "women's work."
Lewis highlights an article from the April, 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan, "The Computer Girls":
[I]f it doesn't sound like woman's work -- well, it just is.... "I had this idea I'd be standing at a big machine and pressing buttons all day long," says a girl who programs for a Los Angeles bank. "I couldn't have been further off the track. I figure out how the computer can solve a problem, and then instruct the machine to do it."
"It's just like planning a dinner," explains Dr. Grace Hopper, now a staff scientist in system programming for Univac. (She helped develop the first electronic digital computer, the Eniac, in 1946.) "You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it's ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are 'naturals' at computer programming."
Where did all the women go? The rise of the personal computer, Lewis argues, created the impression that computer programming was a solitary endeavor for creepy (male) loners. By the 1980s, only about one in five computer science majors were women. That trend is beginning to reverse itself -- today, it's around one in four -- but the erroneous idea that computer programming is and always has been "for boys" helps to keep those numbers down. It's a classic case of the way history can end up erroneously justifying a silly status quo. Read more at Fog Creek.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.