But even as Wilkes established herself as a programmer, she still craved a life as a lawyer. Computers were intellectually stimulating but socially isolating. In , she applied and got in to Harvard Law School, and after graduating, she spent the next four decades as a lawyer.
Today Wilkes is retired and lives in Cambridge, Mass. She told me that she occasionally gives talks to young students studying computer science.
The changing role of women in British computing
In , when she started working at M. It reached 35 percent in The numbers fell after that, and by , women were down to 26 percent — below their share in Read about the woman who founded Code For America. Almost years ago, the first person to be what we would now call a coder was, in fact, a woman: Lady Ada Lovelace. Enthralled, Lovelace grasped the enormous potential of a device like this.
A computer that could modify its own instructions and memory could be far more than a rote calculator, she realized. To prove it, Lovelace wrote what is often regarded as the first computer program in history, an algorithm with which the Analytical Engine would calculate the Bernoulli sequence of numbers.
But Babbage never managed to build his computer, and Lovelace, who died of cancer at 36, never saw her code executed. When digital computers finally became a practical reality in the s, women were again pioneers in writing software for the machines. At the time, men in the computing industry regarded writing code as a secondary, less interesting task. The real glory lay in making the hardware.
Light, a professor at M. This dynamic was at work in the development of the first programmable digital computer in the United States, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or Eniac, during the s. Funded by the military, the thing was a behemoth, weighing more than 30 tons and including 17, vacuum tubes.
Merely getting it to work was seen as the heroic, manly engineering feat. In contrast, programming it seemed menial, even secretarial. Women had long been employed in the scut work of doing calculations. In the years leading up to the Eniac, many companies bought huge electronic tabulating machines — quite useful for tallying up payroll, say — from companies like IBM; women frequently worked as the punch-card operators for these overgrown calculators.
Jennings, who grew up as the tomboy daughter of low-income parents near a Missouri community of people, studied math at college. To this day, break points are a key part of the debugging process. They asked Jennings and Snyder to write a program that calculated missile trajectories. After weeks of intense effort, they and their team had a working program, except for one glitch: It was supposed to stop when the missile landed, but for some reason it kept running. The night before the demo, Snyder suddenly intuited the problem.
Computer Programming Used To Be Women’s Work | Smart News | Smithsonian
She went to work early the next day, flipped a single switch inside the Eniac and eliminated the bug. Nonetheless, the women got little credit for their work. After the war, as coding jobs spread from the military into the private sector, women remained in the coding vanguard, doing some of the highest-profile work.
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Later, she advised the team that created the Cobol language, which became widely used by corporations. Another programmer from the team, Jean E. Fran Allen was so expert in optimizing Fortran, a popular language for performing scientific calculations, that she became the first female IBM fellow. As Wilkes had discovered, employers simply looked for candidates who were logical, good at math and meticulous.
The field rewarded aptitude: Applicants were often given a test typically one involving pattern recognition , hired if they passed it and trained on the job, a process that made the field especially receptive to neophytes.
Such was the hunger for programming talent that a young black woman named Arlene Gwendolyn Lee could become one of the early female programmers in Canada, despite the open discrimination of the time. Lee was half of a biracial couple to whom no one would rent, so she needed money to buy a house.
Lee persuaded the employers, who were all white, to let her take the coding aptitude test. When she placed in the 99th percentile, the supervisors grilled her with questions before hiring her.
Most women had it much harder. Elsie Shutt learned to code during her college summers while working for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army facility in Maryland. So Shutt founded Computations Inc. They cared for their kids during the day, then coded at night, renting time on local computers. It was the rare white-collar occupation in which women could thrive.
Nearly every other highly trained professional field admitted few women; even women with math degrees had limited options: teaching high school math or doing rote calculations at insurance firms. If we want to pinpoint a moment when women began to be forced out of programming, we can look at one year: A decade earlier, a study revealed that the numbers of men and women who expressed an interest in coding as a career were equal.
In only one decade, their participation rate more than doubled. But then things went into reverse. From onward, the percentage dropped; by the time rolled around, it had been cut in half. Only One reason for this vertiginous decline has to do with a change in how and when kids learned to program. Before then, pretty much every student who showed up at college had never touched a computer or even been in the room with one.
Computers were rare and expensive devices, available for the most part only in research labs or corporate settings. Nearly all students were on equal footing, in other words, and new to programming. Once the first generation of personal computers, like the Commodore 64 or the TRS, found their way into homes, teenagers were able to play around with them, slowly learning the major concepts of programming in their spare time. They were remarkably well prepared for and perhaps even a little jaded about what Computer Science might bring. One researcher was Allan Fisher, then the associate dean of the computer-science school at Carnegie Mellon University.
The school established an undergraduate program in computer science in , and after a few years of operation, Fisher noticed that the proportion of women in the major was consistently below 10 percent. In , he hired Jane Margolis, a social scientist who is now a senior researcher in the U. School of Education and Information Studies, to figure out why. What Margolis discovered was that the first-year students arriving at Carnegie Mellon with substantial experience were almost all male.
They had received much more exposure to computers than girls had; for example, boys were more than twice as likely to have been given one as a gift by their parents. Their mothers were typically less engaged with computers in the home, they told her.
Women invented the field. Then men pushed them out of it.
Girls, even the nerdy ones, picked up these cues and seemed to dial back their enthusiasm accordingly. These were pretty familiar roles for boys and girls, historically: Boys were cheered on for playing with construction sets and electronics kits, while girls were steered toward dolls and toy kitchens. At school, girls got much the same message: Computers were for boys. Geeky boys who formed computer clubs, at least in part to escape the torments of jock culture, often wound up, whether intentionally or not, reproducing the same exclusionary behavior.
These groups snubbed not only girls but also black and Latino boys. A cultural schism had emerged. The women started doubting their ability. How would they ever catch up? But there was a double standard: While it was O. By the second year, many of these women, besieged by doubts, began dropping out of the program.
The same was true for the few black and Latino students who also arrived on campus without teenage programming experience.
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