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Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?

OHMomof2OHMomof2 Registered User Posts: 12,294 Senior Member
NYT Article this weekend. Interesting look at a time when lots of women were coding software, and how gradually they left and men took over. It walks through Eniac in the 1940s and the women who developed software for it, to Grace Hopper in the 50s, several others in the 60s, to 1984 when the tide began to turn.

It discusses how some colleges (CMU, HMudd) are dealing with that today, and challenges women in CS careers face, especially as they reach management.


Replies to: Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?

  • 1NJParent1NJParent Registered User Posts: 846 Member
    edited February 16
    The reason software engineering is dominated by men (and young men) is the same as why IBs are dominated by young men (at least in trading and investment banking): devotion of time of these young men to their work to the exclusion of almost everything else. Women, and older men, generally don't have that luxury. One of primary reasons behind the devotion is obviously money, in addition to their interest in these types of work.

    Computing is much more than software engineering these days. Perhaps women will become better represented in other disciplines of computing.
  • SatchelSFSatchelSF Registered User Posts: 1,385 Senior Member
    edited February 16
    It's just too much of a time commitment for many young women, who often have other priorities to attend to in their mid 20s through their 30s. I know at least 4 women out of schools like Harvard, Yale, MIT and Columbia, each of whom with graduate degrees from those same or similar institutions, who chucked it all in their early 30s to raise a family. Each couldn't be happier with her decision (they are considerably older now).
  • OHMomof2OHMomof2 Registered User Posts: 12,294 Senior Member
    edited February 16
    Time commitment might be a factor, but that theory suggests the time commitment back when lots of women did code was less than it is now.

    Is that so?

    @roycroftmom makes a good point - is the time commitment less in other countries where this gap doesn't exist, or are the women different in those other countries?
  • TomSrOfBostonTomSrOfBoston Registered User Posts: 15,087 Senior Member
    @roycroftmom Can you post the source of your statement please?
  • SatchelSFSatchelSF Registered User Posts: 1,385 Senior Member
    edited February 16
    @yucca10 wrote:
    The company I work for now had very different interview questions that tested general understanding and intelligence, relaxed interview atmosphere, no whiteboard coding.
    Interesting. If you read between the lines of the article, you will see that the early women programmers who were featured were hired on the basis of IQ tests. About Wilkes:
    So instead, institutions that needed programmers just used aptitude tests to evaluate applicants’ ability to think logically.
    On the hiring process in the US and England in the 1950s and 60s generally:
    The field rewarded aptitude: Applicants were often given a test (typically one involving pattern recognition), hired if they passed it...
    And Lee:
    Lee persuaded the employers, who were all white, to let her take the coding aptitude test. When she placed in the 99th percentile...
    CS is not my field, but I would guess that hiring decisions today often reflect whether the applicant survived the socialization process of middle school coding camps, high school CS competitions, and then college majors.
  • OHMomof2OHMomof2 Registered User Posts: 12,294 Senior Member
    @TomSrOfBoston it's in the article.

    Yes, early on they were hired for math skills and aptitude. I thin the culture is a big part of it now, or so the article says.
  • lookingforwardlookingforward Registered User Posts: 31,218 Senior Member
    I'd hope any exploration of Why doesn't easily revert to something being wrong with women. Eg, that they don't want to work as hard or only work best with certain sorts of challenges.

    Nearly all CS folks need the 'socialization' skills, called "collaborative." Geting there is not limited to CS camps or competitions.
  • Data10Data10 Registered User Posts: 2,715 Senior Member
    edited February 16
    The article refers to a study conducted in 2016 in which gender neutral resumes were sent out for job openings leading to a more than 50% response rate, but the same resume with a female name yielded a 5% callback rate.
    This does not appear to be a published study. Instead it appears to be a based on a statement from an employee of a recruiting agency. Actual published studies often find a statistically significant difference between callback rate and gender or race, particularly in fields where there is gender/race expectation, but I've never seen differences anywhere near as high as the one listed in the article. I used to work with a male tech employee who had a first name that was >90% female. He thought that his female name gave him an advantage in getting interviews, although at the interview their language often suggested disappointment about his male gender. The interviewer would sometimes make a comment like, "You're {name}?!.... okay.... uh... I guess you can come in."

    You can view the percentage female CS degrees at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_325.35.asp?current=yes . A brief summary is below. It looks like there were two key periods of rapid decline in female CS degree percentage -- 1985 to 1990 and 2002 to 2007.

    In the first 1985 to 1990 decline, the number of students majoring in CS decreased for both genders, but the rate of decrease was more rapid for women than men -- dropping in half from 15k to 7k. I agree with the article that one important factor in the gender difference is the home computer, particularly the Commodore 64. It was the first affordable home computer for typical families and changed CS from a field you started in college to something HS kids often studied. During this period nearly all computer and video gaming marketing targeted males, and males were far more likely to be involved in HS computing activities including programming classes. This contributed to a male CS nerd type stereotype, as popularized in movies like Revenge of the Nerds, which was released in 1984.

    The same pattern that happened in 1985 also happened from 2002-7. Again CS decreased for both genders, but the rate was more rapid from women than men -- dropping in half from 15k to 7k. I expect most of this decline was a delayed response to the dot com crash of 2000-02. During and shortly after the dot com crash fewer persons chose to major in CS. However, females seem to have suffered more than males. Perhaps it has something to do with females being more likely to emphasize CS career prospects than males or being more sensitive to perceived scarcity of jobs.

    1971 -- 14% female
    1975 -- 19% female
    1980 -- 30% female
    1985 -- 37% female (37.1% in 83-84 is peak)
    1990 -- 30% female
    1995 -- 29% female
    2000 -- 28% female
    2005 -- 22% female
    2010 -- 18% female
    2017 -- 19% female.
  • 1NJParent1NJParent Registered User Posts: 846 Member
    edited February 16
    I agree that part of the problem is cultural but we can't blame everything on the other sex. For instance, my S is attending a hackathon this weekend and there're a bunch of them on college campuses across the country this long weekend. Most attendees of these events are boys. They do nothing else but coding or other challenges for 48-72 hours straight with practically no sleep (they may nap on a bare floor). No shower, or other basic types of hygiene. Some girls do attend these events but most girls probably find these conditions dreadful.
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