Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing (History of Computing)
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Today, women earn a relatively low percentage of computer science degrees and hold proportionately few technical computing jobs. Meanwhile, the stereotype of the male "computer geek" seems to be everywhere in popular culture. Few people know that women were a significant presence in the early decades of computing in both the United States and Britain. Indeed, programming in postwar years was considered woman's work (perhaps in contrast to the more manly task of building the computers themselves). In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate explores the untold history of women in computer science and programming from the Second World War to the late twentieth century. Demonstrating how gender has shaped the culture of computing, she offers a valuable historical perspective on today's concerns over women's underrepresentation in the field. Abbate describes the experiences of women who worked with the earliest electronic digital computers: Colossus, the wartime codebreaking computer at Bletchley Park outside London, and the American ENIAC, developed to calculate ballistics. She examines postwar methods for recruiting programmers, and the 1960s redefinition of programming as the more masculine "software engineering." She describes the social and business innovations of two early software entrepreneurs, Elsie Shutt and Stephanie Shirley; and she examines the career paths of women in academic computer science. Abbate's account of the bold and creative strategies of women who loved computing work, excelled at it, and forged successful careers will provide inspiration for those working to change gendered computing culture.
of what that would involve. Some of them had already been working for the military doing hand calculations; others came straight from school, having found out about the openings at the University of Pennsylvania through college advisers or friends. One thing that they had in common was a dearth of better options. Kay McNulty (quoted above) was painfully aware of the limited prospects for female mathematicians. Marlyn Wescoff, one of two ENIAC women with a nonmathematical college degree, found the
which resembled machine code but specified more complex actions than the machine’s hardware could actually perform. A program written in pseudocode had to be interpreted by another program that would translate the code line by line into machine instructions, executing each instruction before moving on to the next.12 In 1951, Hopper, then head of programming for UNIVAC, took a decisive step toward high-level languages with her most significant invention—the compiler. With the interpreter system,
mutual respect for individual talent and cooperation in the common cause.”90 Although Weinberg did not explicitly refer to gender, his contrast between egoless and egotistical programmers mirrored gender stereotypes, and his analysis struck a chord with several women that I interviewed. Marlene Hazle, who worked at the MITRE Corporation, felt that Weinberg’s critique captured a “male” atmosphere of competitiveness in the early computer industry. Hazle reflected, “Where everybody was so new,
greatest attraction was the relatively high proportion of women in the data-processing industry,” recounted a business text describing FI’s failed strategy, but “What [Shirley] and Frank Knight had failed to spot was that the main reason for the high proportion of women in the Danish data processing industry was the fact that Denmark had evolved over the years a much more sophisticated child-care system than had Britain.”60 Danish women evidently did not need part-time work while raising
for computer staff at universities and the short supply of people with computer science degrees or experience created openings for people without traditional academic qualifications. For women who had never been encouraged to pursue a technical major or a higher degree, this created an unusual second chance to enter the academic “pipeline”—a metaphor that is itself based on the masculine model of an uninterrupted linear progression from secondary school to college, graduate school, and eventually