When Programming was Women’s Work

These days when the picture one automatically gets when they hear the words “computer programmer” is male and white and dorky it is easy to think it was always that way. But actually it hasn’t always been that way. In fact in the beginning programming was “woman’s work.”

I was reminded of that recently while reading about the recent Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One blog post pointed me to the ENIAC Programmers Project which is creating a documentary of the six women who were the programmers for the ENIAC computer back in the 1940s.

Most computer classes that cover the history of computing talk about Ada Lovelace who worked with Babbage of course. It always felt a little like that was a toss away item to say “yes sure there was a woman in computer science once upon a time.” But of course there have been lots of women in computer science and they have made huge contributions.

Grace Hopper (after whom the Grace Hopper Conference is named) was one of my personal and professional heroes. She was a brilliant computer scientist who was instrumental in the first real programming language developments as well as an inspiring speaker. We probably owe her more credit for standardization of programming languages than anyone in the history of computing. The US Navy named a war ship after her BTW. Not some wimpy building or a cargo shop but a real honest to goodness guided missile destroyer – small, fast, powerful, and very high tech – a good choice I think.

And of course more recently, Frances Allan was awarded the Turing Award for her contributions to computer science.

But involvement in computer science by women continues to this day. I’ve been privileged to know and to work with a number of wonderful computer scientests and computer professionals who were also women in my career. I would have to say that the young women students in my programming classes as a teacher were generally outstanding students who typically out performed most (and occasionally all) of there male classmates. My own wife was an outstanding professional programmer for a number of years. Her programs always worked the first time which frustrated me no end.

Studies show that women CS students often under estimate their abilities in computer science. Male students on the other hand are notorious for over estimating their ailities. Why is that and how do we fix it? I have no idea but it is something we have to deal with.

Women have long been outstanding computer scientests and IT professionals. Perhaps they don’t demand enough attention. Or perhaps, especially in the early days, there were men who stood in the way of women getting the credit they deserved. But for what ever reason we have today’s shortage of women in the CS/IT field I think it is holding the field back. It’s a problem we need to solve.