Jennifer Taylor provides fresh insight on the minority of women in computer science by looking at causes of The Decline of Women in Computer Science from 1940-1982. From the pioneering work of Ada Lovelace as the first programmer for the difference engine in the 1800s to those who worked as human computers in the early 20th century to the group who programmed the first computing machine to support the war effort In the 1940s, women played a significant role in the nascent field of computer science.
“The rationale for selecting female programmers was partly due to the scarcity of qualified male labor during the war, but another significant factor was the expectation that women would be uniquely suited to this position, which demanded great ‘patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail’ – qualities that many employers attributed to the feminine sex.” (Taylor references Denise W. Gruer, “Pioneering Women in Computer Science,” 1, from the Adele Mildred Koss papers, 1993-1998, 1 folder, Schlesinger Library)
Despite this auspicious beginning, the participation of women in computer science declined steadily from the 1940s to the early 1980s. One factor that Taylor identifies is the association of computer science with engineering schools. Unlike the hard sciences and mathematics, the engineering discipline was particularly hostile to women. While noting that degrees awarded to women in computer science grew from the 1960s to the 1980s, Taylor points out the overall low participation of women in the field, relative to its beginnings in the 1940s.
The contrast between Taylor’s thesis and the chart above is not adequately explained. It is interesting to note the sharp decline in women in CS from 1966 to 1967. I wish I had the source data from this graph, but the early data set my be so small so that the decline is not significant. There were only a few universities which had computer science departments in the mid-60s. (Purdue University had the first in 1962, followed by Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in 1965. However, I think Taylor’s point is that the number of women in the field declined after the war from a majority of women programmers to a small minority. The increase in women from the mid-70s to the mid-80s merits further study. If we could replicate such a phenomenon, we could create a more balanced environment in the field.
The whole article is worth reading for it includes a number of interesting historical quotes and offers a rare insight into the early beginnings of computer software development. I’ll quote the conclusion below:
It is doubtless the case that there are more nuances to the masculinization of computing than what could be covered by this short analysis, but the main components of the transition seem clear – that the early advantage of women in computing was largely diminished by a post-war society trying to return to “normalcy,” that the establishment of male-dominated academic and corporate structures marginalized women’s working habits and culture, and that the ubiquity of computing in the home triggered early gender socialization of computers as being a male domain. The positive outcome of this history, however, is the strong evidence that computing is not inherently a male domain, that it is indeed a socially constructed stereotype, and that women’s interests and technical capabilities are not a matter of “innate” differences. The historic accomplishments of the generations past are proof that women can succeed in computing, and understanding the forces that caused their decline is the first step toward fixing the today’s continuing gender inequalities in computer science.
read the original article