If you haven’t already, be sure to read our prior post before this one. It’s the brief historical story of Lena, the early quality standard for algorithms that enable the transfer of digital images, and the precursor of today’s ubiquitous JPEG picture-file format. If you know Lena’s original story, then please read on. (Our post is excerpted from the work of Emily Chang of Bloomberg BusinessWeek and her new book “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley.”)
When Deanna Needell, now a math prof at UCLA, first encountered “Lena” in a computer science class, she quickly realized that the original image model was nude (she was culled from the pages of Playboy in 1972) and it made her realize, “Oh, I am the only woman here. I am different.” Needell says, “It made gender an issue for me where it wasn’t before.”
Her male colleagues, predictably, didn’t see the big deal. Said one, “when you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore, it’s just pixels,” in a statement that naively laid out the problem of sexism that Needell and her colleagues tried to point out. But with so few women among the ranks of the programming class, it’s no surprise.
It wasn’t always that way.
As we’ve pointed out previously a post here, the early days of programming were predominantly fueled by women. In that early, post-WWII era, programmers were mostly women, and the work was considered more of a clerical nature, and thus ‘better suited’ to women. Only later, when the economy turned down and computers looked to be a key tool of the future, did men begin to enter the programming ranks, eventually even pushing women out as the image of computers and programming pivoted to something more suited to “introverts and antisocial nerds.”
In one pivotal study in the 1960s, two psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry profiled 1,378 programmers, of whom by the way only 186 were women. Their results formed the basis for a “vocational interest scale” they believed could predict “satisfaction” – and thus, success – in the field. They concluded that people who liked solving various types of puzzles made for good programmers, and that made sense.
But then they drew a second conclusion, drawn, remember, from their mostly male sample size, in which they concluded that happy software engineers “shared one striking characteristic” according to Ms. Chang: They don’t like people. They concluded in the end that programmers “dislike activities involving close personal interaction and are more interested in things than people.” As Ms. Chang pointedly notes then… “There’s little evidence to suggest that antisocial people are more adept at math or computers. Unfortunately, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that if you set out to hire antisocial nerds, you’ll wind up hiring a lot more men than women.”
So while in 1967 Cosmopolitan was letting it be known that “a girl senior systems analyst gets $20,000 – and up!” (equivalent to $150,000 today) and heralded women as ‘naturals’ at computer programming, by 1968, Cannon’s and Perry’s work had tech recruiters noting the “often egocentric, slightly neurotic, bordering on schizophrenic” demeanor of what was becoming a largely male cadre of coders, sporting “beards, sandals and other forms of nonconformity.”
Tests such as these remained the industry standard for decades, ensuring that eventually the ‘pop culture trope’ of the male nerd wound up putting computers on the boy’s side of the toy aisle.
By 1984, the year of Apple Inc.’s iconic “1984” Super Bowl commercial, the percentage of females earning degrees in computer science had peaked at 37%. As the number of overall computer science degrees increased during the dot-com boom, notes Chang, “far more men than women filled those coveted seats,” and the percentage of women in the field would dramatically decline for the next 25 years.
We’ll finish out this series of posts with a look at the state of women in tech today and what that might mean for tomorrow, so stay tuned.