This week, the New York Times Magazine included a well written article on gender balance in the computing fields. Written by Clive Thompson, it is a fascinating story (Feb 13, 2019) of the early days of coding. — only hardware engineers were highly sought after. Women filled the ranks of writing code — women who loved math and solving problems. Writing code wasn’t high-status work — yet — and the term ‘software’ didn’t exist.
With rare exceptions — Stanford University for example — universities did not offer computer science degrees until the 1980s. Instead, institutions, such as the U.S. Navy that needed programmers just used aptitude tests to evaluate applicants’ ability to think logically. Admiral Grace Hopper, a mathematician was perhaps the exception — she joined the navy reserve in 1943 and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance’s Computation Project. She developed an early compiler (of code) and a decade later helped standardize Cobol a business application. Perhaps best remembered, she coined the term bug to refer to unexplained computer failures after a moth infiltrated the circuits of Mark I, a precursor to computers .
We have been inundated with stats that there is a pipeline problem with improving gender balance — even young women in startups have concluded this and they stick by their story. However, from universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd there is a different narrative. ‘By 2018, 54 percent of Harvey Mudd’s graduates who majored in computer science were women’.
“A broader cultural shift has accompanied the schools’ efforts. In the last few years, women’s interest in coding has begun rapidly rising throughout the United States. In 2012, the percentage of female undergraduates who plan to major in computer science began to rise at rates not seen for 35 years, since the decline in the mid-’80s, according to research by Linda Sax, an education professor at U.C.L.A. There has also been a boomlet of groups and organizations training and encouraging underrepresented cohorts to enter the field, like Black Girls Code and Code Newbie. Coding has come to be seen, in purely economic terms, as a bastion of well-paying and engaging work.”
For those readers who like a long bit of history, Clive Thompson tells how we were eradicated from the industry and while this has been an obstacle, it has not stopped us — well, at least not stopped us from graduating with computer science degrees. It is a great story: with the numbers rising, the next time someone tells you it is a pipeline problem — stop them in their tracks!