Did you know that all six of the first programmers of America’s first computer, ENIAC, were women?
Did you know that the proportion of women earning degrees in computer science peaked in 1984 at 37%, and has since declined to half that percentage?
Or this (according to an article by Christopher Mims in the Dec. 11th edition of The Wall Street Journal): “Memos from UK government archives reveal that in 1959, an unnamed British female computer programmer was given an assignment to train two men. The memos said the woman had ‘a good brain and a special flair’ for working with computers. Nevertheless, a year later the men became her managers. Since she was a different class of government worker, she had no chance of ever rising to their pay grade.”
These facts from Mims’ article would probably come as little surprise to many women today. The sad truth is, with such a low rate of female computing grads, it’s no surprise that at companies as large as Google and Facebook, only about one engineer in five is female. (Over our own thirty year history as an ERP services firm, our level of female tech support specialists has hovered around 50%, varying from year to year, but lower on the pure ‘programmer’ side.)
But according the Journal, a growing number of women and other minorities are working on the issue. U.K. history shows that simply educating more women and other minorities to be engineers won’t solve the problem. At its genesis, computer programming was initially thought of as menial labor and it “was feminized, a kind of ‘women’s work’ that wasn’t considered crucial.” The U.K. government considered these workers to be of the low-paid “Machine Operator Class.” Later, women were pushed out of the field during the postwar era by the then-common belief that women should be denied entry into higher-paid professions because they would leave once married. Instead, the government set out to develop a class of “career-minded and management-bound young men.”
Turns out, the males were often less qualified, and left the field, viewing it as ‘unmanly.’
In fact, a shortage of programmers actually forced the U.K. government “to consolidate its computers in a handful of centers with the remaining coders. It also meant the government demanded gigantic mainframes and ignored more distributed systems of midsize and mini computers which would give rise to the personal computer, according to Univ. of Wisconsin Professor Marie Hicks, in her book “Programmed Inequality.”
As a result, the U.K. computing industry imploded down to a single firm by 1968 – and the dream of personal computers was probably delayed by a couple of decades.
One of the women pushed out, Dame Stephanie Shirley, built a tech firm in the 1960s made up almost entirely of women with family-friendly benefits like working from home. (It was eventually sold to a rival in 2007 for $1 billion.) Shirley said when she founded the firm, she was seeking not wealth but “a workplace where I was not hemmed in by prejudice or by… preconceptions about what I could or could not do.”
As to progress today: Stephenie Palmeri, a partner at Venture Capital firm Uncork Capital says raising the ratio of women in tech requires having more women in positions of power, both as investors and as executives.
Adds Dr. Hicks, “Without external influence, you can’t expect a system that prizes ‘culture fit’ to change.” You can’t expect to rise in a meritocracy that does not reward everyone equally.
Today the challenge is all the greater: companies are racing to build artificial intelligence systems to propel smarter hiring, and the need to eliminate bias has never been greater. AI learns from pre-existing notions of what constitutes a ‘good employee’ much like the personality tests given by many firms in the past. We can scarcely afford to build in biases that inherently limit the opportunity for a level playing field at all.