The Forgotten History of Women in Programming
Fear gnawed away at me as I stared at my programming notes, preparing for my fast-approaching computer science midterm. With a good deal of determination, I had been dedicating time and effort towards understanding the course concepts for several weeks now, so that in class I usually felt like I could follow what was going on. But suddenly, faced with my empty study guide and thinking of all the topics I had to go over, I felt overwhelmed. Why did I think I was cut out for this class? I should’ve just stuck to what I know best, instead of going outside my comfort zone and trying something new.
Looking back, these thoughts seem a little ridiculous. But in the moment they felt completely real and justified. Programming is for STEM people and those who excel at logic, I thought, and that’s not me.
I had fallen prey to stereotype threat—or the self-confirming belief that one will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype of their group (Study.com). As a woman, I’ve often heard stereotypes about my “group,” such as “women are bad at math,” and “women aren’t good with computers.” While I might never explicitly believe these, they might still be in the back of my mind.
When it comes to proving my programming knowledge on a test, then, the anxiety of confirming these stereotypes can be overwhelming and disruptive. What if I bomb the test and prove that women aren’t good with computers? Psychology shows that this fear is enough to alter performance, hence making our worst fears a reality (antisexism.wordpress.com).
While it seems ridiculous to be defeated by a mere stereotype, stereotype threat has very real effects and often allows for the “maintenance of inequality, including gender inequality” (antisexism.wordpress.com). So how can we fight it?
Role models can have an amazing effect, it turns out. Having positive role models with which members of a targeted group can identify can help reduce stereotype threat (antisexism.wordpress.com). Being able to look up to women who have found success in the field of computer science, for example, can help relieve the burdensome fear of confirming a negative stereotype. If there are successful computer scientists who are women, then I am not alone—my performance needn’t reflect on the abilities of all women. Without this pressure, I can focus on doing my best and rely on my confidence in my own abilities.
Yet when the popular image of a computer programmer is a young (often white) male, are there role models to be found? Surprisingly, there are many female computer programmers to admire—we just have to look a little deeper to find them. After doing a little digging myself, I’d like to share the forgotten history of women in programming to help change perceptions of women in the field, bring to light positive role models, and show that anyone can be anything they set their minds to. *cue cheesy Zootopia gif*
First up: breaking down the idea that programming is just for men. Programming hasn’t always been thought of as a masculine field. In fact, it used to be considered work fit for a secretary, “a bit of plug-and-chug labor that merely required women to set into motion preset plans” (theatlantic.com).
However condescending this may sound, women at the time found a way to make the field their own. In a 1967 Cosmopolitan article, the so-called “Queen of Code” Grace Hopper insisted that “Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming,” explaining that programming “is just like planning a dinner”: “It requires advance preparation, patience, and attention to detail” (theatlantic.com). Before the “women aren’t good with computers” stereotype ever existed, then, there was a time when women were thought to be exceptional programmers.
Men usually stuck to the “manly” labor of computer hardware and circuitry, leaving the programming of software to women—a job that had less prestige, and consequently, less pay. It wasn’t until perceptions of programming changed that men started flocking to the job, nonsensically making it seem more prestigious and therefore raising the average salary.
Programming quickly became a field that was thought to require “stereotypically masculine characteristics” such as mathematical aptitude, “even as industry leaders argued that such skills were becoming irrelevant to contemporary programming” (theatlantic.com). When societal perceptions of the same job waver over the years, it becomes clear that it biases, not inherent, gendered abilities, are what fuel negative stereotypes and bar women from the field.
Seeing as how women pioneered advances in computer programming, there are many female programmers to look up to. Among them is Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. In hopes that Ada would turn out better than her father, a notoriously wild poet, Ada’s mother had her tutored extensively in mathematics. At just seventeen she met mathematician Charles Babbage, who shared with her his plans for a rudimentary computing machine. Lovelace imagined greater capability for the machine so that it could compute more than just numbers, and wrote the first algorithm for the computer (npr.org).
Grace Hopper, the aforementioned “Queen of Code,” was also quite remarkable. A math professor at Vassar, she left to join the war effort during WWII. She went on to become a rear admiral in the Navy Reserve. Besides joining the team that worked on one of the first major commercial computers, Hopper “found a way to program computers using words rather than numbers,” leading to a breakthrough in programming languages and eliminating the need to use different programming languages for different kinds of computers (npr.org).
Bringing up the rear of this list, but by no means being the the least prominent programmer, is Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton worked on a project called SAGE that used a system of computers to compile a unified image of the airspace over an area, which was later developed for use in air defense from the Soviet Union during the Cold War (source). She went on to join NASA, and headed the MIT software team that wrote code to land Apollo 11 on the moon (theatlantic.com). The code she helped develop was also cited with avoiding a last-minute system abort of Apollo’s landing procedure.
Let’s do our best to assure that these amazing women do not remain forgotten, and to keep them in mind when facing seemingly unconquerable fears and odds—I know I will!