A Brief History of Women in Computing

A Brief History of Women in Computing
Women invented the field. Then men pushed them out of it.
By Faruk Ateş
Aug 9 2017

In this week’s mashup episode of Scandal: Silicon Valley, James Damore, a newly-fired Google engineer, wrote a 10-page memo arguing that the company’s efforts to improve diversity were misguided. Damore based his thesis on ideas from Evolutionary Psychology and the Big 5 personality traits, arguing, in essence, that because psychological differences exist between men and women (true), these are therefore bound to biology (tenuous), and therefore explain differences between men and women in their interest and subsequent representation in the field of computer science and programming (no evidence provided, and ahistorical — see below).

Curious minds can read the full memo (including its citations, which were previously omitted when it was leaked to Gizmodo).

A note on Evolutionary Psychology and “being scientific”

While I describe the field as “BS” in my original twitter storm (largely for brevity, as Twitter is the death of nuance), about half a dozen people have objected to that blanket dismissal. I’m not interested in a discussion on the merits or validity of evo-psych or not; you can believe in it all you want, there’s no harm in that.


Such beliefs are a problem when you try to use them to justify discriminatory or harmful views. “Sounding academic” and adopting its language may help sway some fence-sitters, wrap covers over the eyes of the naïve, or make your claims appear to hold more weight. But it’s neither good science nor a constructive way to propose a debate.

You can’t cherry-pick a couple of scientific studies you like and use them to justify your arguments against diversity programs, while carefully ignoring the mountains of other scientific studies that show both how and why diversity programs are good, beneficial to all, and worth investing in.

That’s not to say diversity programs are universally great and nothing can go wrong with them; unless done carefully, they can fail. But if you adopt scientific or academic language to sound more authoritative, your methods and arguments must pass scientific and academic scrutiny. Using tenuous links from studies that support your ideology while ignoring studies that firmly disprove that ideology fails this basic test.

Whatever generics evolutionary psychology might be proving about differences between genders, there has not been any evidence whatsoever showing that these biological differences are cause for something as specific as interest in computer science. Any pretense otherwise is simply a giant leap from scientific findings to justifying an ideology. Furthermore, such evidence would have to account for and explain away the historical evidence that very strongly suggests the opposite. Which brings us to:

History strongly disagrees with Damore’s assertions that women are “biologically” less interested in programming

Damore, a.k.a. M. Night Broamalan, asserted “biological reasons” why women are less into tech. Well-documented history shows us otherwise.

A history lesson on computer science, not often taught in Computer Science classes: women were the first software engineers, until men actively pushed them out.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer by designing the first computer algorithm, and explaining how it would work on Babbage’s proposed (but non-existent) Analytical Engine.

During World War II, in 1942, Hedy Lamarr invents the frequency-hopping technology that would later allow the invention of wireless signals like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

In 1945–46, Jean Bartik and five other women developed and codified many of the foundations of software programming while working on ENIAC. The six women, whose software work was crucial to its operation and success, were not invited to the dinner celebration for the completion of ENIAC.

In 1952, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper created one of the world’s first compilers (in her spare time). She envisioned code to use English language-based instructions, and her programming language design work led to the creation of COBOL, used to this day.

Moving into the post-war era and the 1960’s, software engineering was considered “women’s work” because it was thought of as clerical. Hardware was the difficult job, i.e. “for men”. Cosmopolitan famously ran a 1967 issue about “The Computer Girls,” with Admiral Hopper saying women are “naturals” at computer programming. (By “naturals” Hopper wasn’t referring to biology, it should be noted, but to the responsibilities women were socialized in, such as planning a dinner and having everything be ready at the appropriate time.)



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