This is not a blog I anticipated writing. My plan was to let Women's History Month pass me by as much as possible.
...but I'm tired.
I am tired.
History of Women in Programming
I am tired.
From March 2020 to August 2020, I started learning to code basically in isolation. I talked about it a lot to my husband and some with a few friends, but I hadn't joined any communities. I wasn't blogging or on Twitter. I didn't find out CSS was supposed to be hard and annoying until I was already in love with it.
That was a blessing.
Because what came after - the last year and a half I've been coding in public, networking, and employed as a developer has included a series of othering comments, attitudes, and assumptions. Believe me, I understand that if my skin color wasn't this shade of printer paper white, it would be markedly worse.
That makes me even more tired.
Some comments are well-meaning. There's a trend I've been referring to as "making me out to be a unicorn" that I just smile and nod through.
"It's so nice to see a female developer!"
"We need more women developers!"
"You're a shining example of what a female developer can do."
Let's break that last one down. Stereotype threat is a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Which means, merely by pointing out that there is a stereotype about a group you can trigger underperformance in an individual in that group. In someone prone to perfectionism or overachieving, the idea that any failure on their part will be used as further evidence for the stereotype can be absolutely paralyzing.
Another one I got a lot was "it'll be easy for you to get a job because you're a diversity hire!"
While usually said to encourage me, what these people don't realize is being marked as a diversity hire is a harmful stigma. Immediately, people assume you weren't hired because of merit. Plus, thanks to the bungling of affirmative action laws, people assume "diversity candidates" are getting an easier ride, but minorities have plenty of hurdles to jump before getting to the interview stage. Plus, there are people out there actively making it harder for these candidates. We've all seen the FAANG hiring manager confession on blind at this point.
The similar but more insidious comments made by hiring managers were like "We can't keep women developers because of other companies' diversity quotas."
Still, these comments are easy to shrug off. These people aren't trying to highlight the systematic inequalities inherent in my field. Hiring managers often don't understand the realities of the labor market, and a comment like that last one lets you know the company culture probably isn't inclusive. The state of U.S. hiring in general is a quagmire that needs serious reform.
It's the other comments that are more difficult to deal with.
"Your husband clearly does all your work for you."
"Why not take advantage of the fact that they assume you're less competent because you're a woman?"
The assumptions and attitudes are worse and harder to call out.
More often than not, I was expected to take on glue work
like scheduling, taking notes, and project management by default. It was often assumed I would want to take on less technical roles while I interviewed. I find a surprising amount of people assume I'm not technical and over-explain things to me. Worse are the people who explain my own work and conclusions back to me. When I've observed I'm being interrupted all the time and not taken seriously, I'm told it's because of my language and how to correct it.
When I get a blog that has a couple thousand views or more, I often get weird messages, hit on, or sexually harassed through my portfolio site. Even worse, after years of being a woman on the internet and in male-dominated spaces, I knew to expect it.
It adds up.
It's not made easier by the way I wonder if I would have been programming in middle and high school if anyone had encouraged my natural interest in these subjects the way they did my male peers. Instead they actively discouraged it.
Nor am I encouraged by the pregnancy discrimination and pay gaps in and out of tech.
I am exhausted by the stereotype that front-end and CSS are easier and therefore more suited to women.
Let's not forget about the cycle of Twitter threads full of comments about how women just aren't suited to tech. I shudder at the thought of the DMs of women in tech with large followings.
These are just a few of the patterns I've seen in the last year and a half. There are more.
Continually, the advice is to ignore it. Just keep shrugging it off. Don't let them get to you. Don't feed the trolls.
...but I'm tired.
They simply don't have the right to other us. We've been here since the beginning. There was a time when men were ignoring low-paying programming jobs for high-paying hardware jobs and women were encouraged to study math and computer science.
History of Women in Programming
Ada Lovelace was the first programmer. In fact, she wrote the first machine algorithm and died long before a computer that could run it was built.
In the 1940's, WWII drove interest and funding for computers. Dr. Grace Hopper started her long and influential career by helping develop the Mark I for IBM and the Navy. She pioneered using English instead of math in programming languages and in 1991, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology by George Bush.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military supported two men in building the the ENAIC to calculate firing trajectories. The 100 or so women they had on staff doing the math by hand (called computers) took too long.
It seemed natural to them to hire women to write the computing instructions for the ENAIC. The team included Jean Jennings Bartik (who lead the development of computer storage and memory), Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton (who created the first software application), Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. They were all instrumental in teaching others to program after the war.
Source: U.S. ARMY/BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES
There were no instruction manuals. These women invented the programming for this computer from scratch. At first, they didn't have access to the machine itself and were expected to do their work on paper. They worked long hours right up until the demo to get it working. They got no credit. They weren't invited to the celebration dinner. No one knew their names for 50 years, and the person who brought their names to light (and created the documentary) was originally told that they were models.
After the ENAIC, the stereotype was women were more suited to programming - then seen as clerical work. In the 1950's, IBM had recruitment pamphlets called "My Fair Ladies" because tech companies used to recruit women with no experience and train them up as programmers. In 1953, Raytheon's programming workforce was 50% women. Upon joining, Elsie Schutt remembers "it really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work!"
When Elsie Schutt was forced to leave her job by state law because she had a child, she founded Computations Inc. and taught women to code so they could work part time writing software. At the same time Mary Allen Wilkes was being pushed into a computer science career. She wanted to be a lawyer.
By the time she joined the team building the LINC, the world's first personal computer, in 1961, more than one in four programmers in the U.S. were women. (Keep in mind - Schutt had to quit her job for having a kid 4 years earlier.) In 1963, Datamation, a computer magazine, published a story saying "women have greater patience than men and are better at details, two prerequisites for the allegedly successful programmer." In 1967, Cosmopolitan ran a story called "The Computer Girls" by Lois Mandel. In it, Dr. Grace Hopper is quoted saying "It’s just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
This is around the same time as the subject matter of Hidden Figures. One of the women portrayed in that book and film, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, started as a computer at NASA and would become an expert in FORTRAN. Around the same time, a black woman named Arlene Gwendolyn Lee was one of the first women programmers in Canada. Her son tells it best.
A study came out in the 1960s that found that male programmers were defined by a disinterest in people. A later study found this to be true of women, as well, but that was ignored and tech companies had begun designing their candidate selection process around the anti-social white male nerd stereotype. At the same time, a field that had once been called the "pink ghetto" was gaining importance, and with it, rising salaries. In 1969, IBM changed their recruiting pamphlet title to "Are YOU the man to command electronic giants?"
That same year, Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler joined the ARPANET project, the first wide-area packet-switched network with distributed control. She and the team she managed were instrumental in standardizing and growing the network. The top-level domain names .com, .gov, .org, .net, and .edu are part of their work.
In 1972, Pamela Hardt-English got her hands on a decommissioned SDS 940 mainframe computer from Transamerica. Driven by a desire to create a shared resources center for her commune, she created an early prototype of the internet. Sherry Reson, Mary Janowitz, and Joan Lefkowitz built a shared directory on top of that. Another team turned that work into Community Memory, the first computerized bulletin board. This project was eventually maintained by Jude Milhon, one of the founding members of Cypherpunks.
Source: Photo first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine.
In 1984, 37.1% of students graduating with computer science or information science degrees were women. That same year, Radia Perlman wrote the Spanning Tree Protocol, fundamental to network bridges and routing protocols, and thus LAN and the internet.
In the mid-80's, the percentage of women enrolled in computer science tanked. Researchers found now that home computers were being sold, they were being marketed as boys' toys. So the boys were showing up to college with much more programming experience than they had previously. The classroom culture became hostile to those who hadn't been programming before enrolling in Computer Science 101. The 1980's media began selling the programmer stereotype we all know today. More and more tech companies changed their hiring criteria and used the new demands of long hours and "culture-fit" to exclude anyone who didn't fit that increasingly popular anti-social white male nerd stereotype.
By the mid-90's five or less women would be in a class of 20 computer science students. In addition to being told they wouldn't make it if they hadn't already been programming, they faced harassment, sexism, and isolation. Women continued to contribute great things - there are too many names and stories for me to cover here. In spite of this, the perception became programming is a man's world. Once it became profitable, society strove to erase women and their contributions from the programming world.
This is all very U.S.-centric, as well. In India, China, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, and Romania more women than men are enrolling in Computer Science.
Originally, Knitting as Programming was twice as long and half about the history of women in programming. I was already feeling the weight of the stereotypes and anger about the erasure of women programmers a year ago.
Unfortunately, I have no real conclusion, just questions - Am I negotiating my salary and compensation hard enough? How can I in good conscience recommend this career path to women when 50% of women leave their tech job by 35? Should I mention they'll need to cultivate more self-confidence and try harder than their male counterparts? Why do we keep using the term imposter syndrome to excuse the culture of othering women and minorities in tech? Why do people think women can fix any of this by changing their language or attitude? What kind of backlash will I receive for writing this?
Top comments (13)
This is (as always) a great article. As a woman in tech, I want to send you a virtual hug. Because I know it's hard, and sometimes none seems to care.
One thing that just amazes me is how society decides something is designed for one gender, and out of nowhere that same thing now is something for the other gender. As a computer engineering student I know I have to try twice as hard as my male classmates to (hopefully, because it is not always the case) be perceived as half as competent.
I remember once I was talking to some classmates about an assignment and I had notes about the subjects, I had made all the exercises the teacher asked us to do, and I knew how to do the assignment, so one of my classmates told me "how am I going to compete with Leticia for a job, I don't even have a notebook for this subject", and my answer was "well, you are most likely to get the job because you (a man) have no change of getting pregnant". This answer kinda of silenced everyone.
Usually men (and people in general) are not taught to put themselves in someone's shoes, and sometimes they just don't have any idea of the struggles other people are going through. And some just don't care. That's a sad fact. The typical person that just say you were asking for it, or that you should have taken more care of yourself. Anyway, I don't want to get deeper into that subject because, I'm also tired, and it's even more tiring knowing what kind of situations may be waiting for me in the future as a programmer.
Thanks for reading! Right back at you with the virtual hug. So sorry to hear you are already feeling this weight.
You hit the nail on the head talking about how men don't have to think about this. I was surprised by the huge, positive response to this blog, honestly. Yes, there were a lot of men who missed the point entirely, but there were many who rose to the challenge when I asked them to think deeper and tell me what they're going to do about it in the future.
To me, this comment sounds like you've got it under control, but definitely check out Kristi's post if you're wanting a dose of optimism and actionable things to do about it. Finding community with other women in tech has definitely helped me the most. Wishing you the best with school!
Thank you for researching, writing and sharing this, Abbey.
I relate so much to a lot you wrote here. As a singular example: When I announced I got made FE-Lead in my current job, I got comments like, "Obviously a quota needed to be filled" etc. I was the startup's first hire and no way I can "just cruise" in my role, but hey y'know, trolls gonna troll.
At the same time, I'd like to share a non-US perspective.
In Canada, my Toronto bootcamp was about 50/50 men/women. In my first job, I was 1 of 3 female devs in a team of 6 developers. I didn't experience a lot of what you shared until I became more active on Twitter. And this has unfortunately become a bit more of my experience since.
I sometimes wonder if part of this may be that Twitter has a disproportionate number of trolls safe behind screens, and the echo-chamber nature of the platform amplifies issues and make it feel all-consuming.
I don't have an answer to the questions you pose. But despite the challenges, I can honestly say I'm grateful to be a developer. It's been life-changing for me.
Thanks for reading! I'm sorry to hear you've had similar experiences.
Twitter/being online/the courage of anonymity is part of it, but I've been surprised by how much "laymen" in my social life are affected by the media perpetuating the stereotype. Every single one of the quotes was said to me in person socially or via video call during bootcamp or in a professional context. Also love those social events that accidentally turn into recruiting events when the people from the software consulting company find out I'm one of those women developers!
Ultimately, it's a pattern I've seen across all male-dominated spaces I've entered. It's even more frustrating in programming because it's so demonstrably false. Compared to areas like e-sports where participation has never been close to 50/50 or D&D which is only just now becoming somewhat inclusive, where there isn't a well-documented long history of excellence to point to.
If you haven't, give Kristi's post I linked in the comments a read. She's in a much more optimistic place about it. I'm hoping I'll get there now that I'm in a very inclusive professional environment. 🙂
Ahhhh I'm so sorry to hear that, Abbey!!! Like you, I definitely want to be valued for the skills I bring to the table, not because of my gender. So glad to hear you're in an inclusive work environment now and I sincerely hope it gets better for you!
Cheers for sharing Kristi's post - great actionable tips to support other women. Love it! 🙌
Thanks for sharing your perspective too! And worth noting that even though it's online the response to this blog has been far more positive than I ever would have anticipated. 🥲
Happy to promote what I'm pretty sure was Kristi's first post on DEV! It's a great one.
There's a fascinating book about the hidden history of women in CS in the UK, they even predated the ENAIC: theguardian.com/careers/2017/aug/1...
Very well-written post, thx!
I know mine just ends with questions, so I wanted to add that I loved @kristiperreault 's take on how you can lift the women in your life up starting today.
Thanks for the shout out Abbey, your post is so well written, thank you for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and some interesting history. I will definitely read some of it further.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks a lot for sharing your point of view. I really enjoyed it!