How Learning About the History of Women in Coding Has Helped Me Appreciate It More

A couple of years ago, I was working as a barista and looking for an additional source of income. My friends suggested I try acquiring coding skills and told me there were free online courses in web development and design. Not only were coding jobs in demand, they were incredibly lucrative (web developers get paid at least $60K in their annual salary according to one statistic). So I signed up for an online program called Skillcrush.

I plowed through my Skillcrush courses in web development, but got extremely frustrated with myself when it came to creating my own webpage. I had to learn how to divide up the tags (those two greater than and less than alligator mouth signs on your keyboard), figure out how much padding to put around my page’s background image, and which fonts were legible. I even took a visual design course where I learned to create a template from Photoshop and my own UX (user experience) web-page design. This not only taught me valuable tech skills; it also taught me patience, and many times I stayed up til 5 am finishing up the website (my shift was the next day at 7 am. Making coffee on two hours of sleep definitely entails making yourself a latte with some extra shots while on the job). In my mind, I didn’t care if it was sloppy because I was done with school and just stopped caring about evaluations and grades. I just wanted to finish, for I had set myself up for perfection and lost steam. For a couple of months, I have taken a hiatus from JavaScript basics because I, once again, lost steam and thought, Maybe I’m not smart enough to pursue a career in tech.

However, as Clive Thompson illustrates in his recent The New York Times Review article, “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” you couldn’t just mess up and call it a day if you were a young woman in computer programming back in the day. In the 1950s, there was a young woman named Mary Ann Wilkes, whose geography teacher in high school encouraged her to pursue computer programming as her career. Mary, like many other Americans at the time, was not interested in this career path. Most Americans back then had little experience writing in code to begin with due to the sheer lack of courses in the discipline (and now STEM and tech industries are booming. Go figure.) While at Wellesley College, Mary heard that computers were going to be the next big thing, so she reconsidered her disinterest and had her parents drive her over to the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) campus, where she went to the employment office and asked if there were openings for programmers. Because there were so few people interested in applying for these jobs, she got it immediately (compared to nowadays, where employers require applicants to these kinds of jobs to have extensive experience. In short, it’s way harder to get a tech job than it was back then since there’s so much more demand for it.)

Like Mary, I, too, majored in philosophy. However, I wasn’t sure how to really use any transferable skills from the discipline in my career. Thompson says that Mary Ann Wilkes “had studied symbolic logic, which can involve creating arguments and inferences by stringing together and/or statements in a way that resembles coding.” (p. 40) As a philosophy major, I didn’t know how my discipline would be even remotely relevant to my coding courses. Everytime I talked about my major, it seemed people would ask me, “Well, what are you going to do with that?” I told a music professor once about me being a philosophy major in college and he told me, in an “oh-so-sad, you’re-screwed-for-choosing-this-major” voice that there weren’t that many post-secondary jobs out there for philosophy majors. Now I’m open to teaching and honestly if I had my druthers (and adequate funding) I would teach courses that integrated philosophy with social work. I just wanted to explore other career options out there, and coding seemed to be a good fit.

As a philosophy major, like Mary and many others, I had to take a Logic 101 course as one of the major requirements. It was one of my hardest courses during my entire time at college, and believe me philosophy classes in general aren’t easy. I think it was because it triggered so many bad memories of me sitting in math class as a kid (although props to me, I actually did love algebra and passed with flying colors) and failing so many assignments that by the end of senior year I thought, “I’m not going to take ANY math classes whatsoever in college. I’m terrible at it!” Note that this is coming from a person who took math classes at the local learning center on the weekends and absolutely enjoyed it (no, seriously, I actually loved math growing up). As a kid I thought math was fun. When I got to 5th grade, however, I hated it because no matter how late I stayed up trying to finish the worksheets, I lost steam and failed them. I always felt everyone else was so much smarter than me.

So it’s no wonder that I carried that low self-esteem with me to Logic 101 and was so reluctant to speak in class because it seemed every time I asked a question or answered the professor’s question on the chalkboard, I couldn’t deal with the fact that I often said the wrong answer or some student would try to make some sarcastic remark about my question. I seriously wished I could wear an Invisibility Cloak so that I didn’t have to make myself known in class. Even though, ironically, the room was full of other young women who probably felt just as insecure and were hiding it. After reading the article, however, (woah, I’m actually getting emotional here. Cue the violins and the Kleenex) I have come to better appreciate my logic course, as well as my other philosophy courses. In these courses I learned how to form cohesive arguments, and in logic, I learned how to make inferences from problems on the page. Logic isn’t easy and I pretty much forgot everything about it by the time I got to taking JavaScript. But at least else/if statements unit in the course jogged some memory of what I learned in Logic 101.

Unlike today, where we are incredibly spoiled to have free online courses and text editors where you can just type in whatever text you need to and save any changes you make with the click of your mouse, it was just paper and punch cards in the 20th century. And you couldn’t afford to have imposter syndrome, thinking, “What if my calculations are wrong?” There were no people out there to give you the answer if you got it wrong. You had to fix anything wrong and just hash it out until you got it right. The kind of serious mental math that these female program writers had to do, though, was considered “menial” work because men were more interested in putting together the actual hardware rather than writing the content to make the hardware carry out commands. Funny, because nowadays writing computer programs is far from menial. In fact, it is really, really difficult.

In the piece, Thompson dates back even further than Mary Ann Wilkes in the 1950s (and her fellow pioneer Grace Hopper, ). In 1833, Lady Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician, wrote the first ever computer program to help inventor Charles Babbage execute his design for an Analytical Engine that would carry out commands and store information in a memory. Sadly Babbage never managed to make the computer work, and as for Ada, she died of cancer at just 36 years old. Neither she nor Babbage got to see how far technology has advanced throughout the centuries. In the 1940s, however, there was a major resurgence of lady techies who called the shots as the lead software writers. All-female teams found and fixed bugs in coding software because there were a lot of glitches in first time programs. Coding, as I mentioned earlier, is not easy, and you will make mistakes. But take inspiration from these leading ladies and see these mistakes as opportunities to dig deeper for solutions to those nasty computer bugs. But the all-female team who developed the first programmable digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac for short), put in tremendous effort to get this computer to work, and Betty Snyder, one of the women on the team, realized late into the night how to fix the bug (after multiple calculations and–I’m sure–cups of black coffee) and came in early the next morning to simply flip a switch inside the computer. The bug was gone. However, sexism wasn’t; even with all the blood, sweat and tears these women put into the computer, the male project managers neither mentioned nor introduced the women at the first official Eniac demo.

Still, women continued to slay in the coding game, with Grace Hopper creating the first compiler, which let users create programming languages similar to everyday English. The compiler would take these languages and turn them into numbers that the computer could understand. Coding jobs continued to boom in the 50s and 60s and women continued to dominate these jobs because employers just wanted people who were good at problem-solving and detail-oriented, so this typically worked in women’s favor. Also, applicants were judged based on an aptitude test they took, not so much on how much previous experience they had coding. If they passed the aptitude test, they got the job. When they got the job, they learned as they went. It was as simple as that. Even if the candidate was a black woman, at a time when few white-collar jobs were open for black women and black people in general, Arlene Gwendolyn Lee got her coding job simply after taking an aptitude test, excelling at it, then answering a few questions from the employer. If you have seen the film Hidden Figures, you get to see three powerful black women go from doing complex math problems on blackboards in their first-grade classrooms to crunching numbers at the predominantly white and male NASA laboratory. Thompson says that

By 1967, there were so many female programmers that Cosmopolitan magazine published an article about “The Computer Girls,” accompanied by pictures of beehived women at work on computers that evoked the control deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The story noted that women could make $20,000 a year doing this work (or more than $150,000 in today’s money). It was the rare white-collar occupation in which women could thrive. Nearly every other highly trained professional field admitted few women; even women with math degrees had limited options; teaching high school math or doing rote calculations at insurance firms.

“The Secret History of Women in Coding”. The New York Times Magazine. Sunday, February 17, 2019. Clive Thompson. page 42.

So…What Happened to All The Women?

Well, it’s more complicated than you think. It was a combination of various factors, mainly the wider access to computers and the reinforcement of historical gender stereotypes. First, people were learning how to program differently than they did in the 1950s, when people came into college with little to no exposure to computers (remember how I talked about Americans’ initial disinterest in computers? Well, it sort of backfired). Most Americans couldn’t afford the computers that scientists and businesspeople had, and there were so few of them made in a mass-produced setting (again, no one really cared about computers other than the Grace Hoppers and the Ada Lovelaces of the mid-2oth century). So then the PC gets invented, and pretty soon people are having them in their homes. Most of the people who played around with these early devices were boys; girls were more likely to receive dollhouses and play-kitchens than they were computers, and even when families got a PC they almost always put it in the boy’s room. Moms, unlike dads, often had little interest in these PCs, so their daughters, too, began to think, “Oh, Mom doesn’t care about the computer? Neither should I.” The dad also would work with his son through the PC manual, but when the daughter wanted to learn, she was often ignored. Thus it’s no surprise that these boys would come to college computer science courses thinking they knew everything, simply because they had been exposed to PCs earlier than girls did. This also manifested in schools; boys who loved computers were often seen as the unpopular “geeks”, but even as they got bullied by jocks, these “geeks” weren’t any nicer than their aggressors, and often excluded female students and students of color from joining their computer clubs.

Thus, computer science classrooms essentially became boys’ clubs where, if you hadn’t had all of this previous exposure to programming and you weren’t constantly exposed to a PC, then programming was not the field for you. Many female students, as well as many Black and Latino students, started doubting their capabilities as a result and dropped out of these programs because they felt that because they hadn’t had as much exposure to these computer programs as the guys did, that they failed somehow (#stupidgendernorms). However, turns out that these female students were getting perfectly good grades and mastered coding at pretty much the same level as the dudes. However, people by the ’80s had pretty much forgotten about the legacy of coding’s female programmers, and Hollywood didn’t help much either, churning out movies that overrepresented young white men as the “real” computer whizzes, such as Revenge of the Nerds. I mean, I used to laugh at Weird Al Yankovic’s song “White and Nerdy”, but after reading this article, I’m thinking that a woman can rap about her love of video games and JavaScript just as well and funny as Weird Al can. Sure, the song might sound different than “White and Nerdy” but at least it would make a valid social commentary about how white men aren’t the only nerds.

When female programmers would raise their hands in class, their male professors and male classmates would often ignore them. The women also dealt with sexual harassment (you thought Trump was the only one to speak “locker-room talk”? Try young white male programmers, who would often openly rate their female classmates’ attractiveness or outright demean these women’s intelligence. By the mid-90s, American computer science classrooms became set in their ways, and males made up most of the programmers. If the lone woman was there, she had to endure serious hell, from dealing with male students who kept pictures of naked women on their desktops to professors telling them that they were “too pretty” to be study programming. It was a vicious cycle. Managers started to take on the misogynistic biases of professors, and began basing their selection of applicants on how these applicants would fit well in the job culture. In the late 1960s, employers began using personality tests to see if an applicant fit the ideal of the antisocial loner they wanted for the position. More often than not, men got hired for these. The women? Not so much. Companies to this day require prospective employees to write code on an algorithm while the employer watches them do it. Because men were given more access to computers than women, they had an unfair advantage and often aced these “whiteboard challenges”. It’s also important to note that most of these companies managers were white or Asian, male and single, so if you were a woman and pursuing coding, the managers would make up reasons why you couldn’t join the team, like “Oh, it’s not safe for women to stay up late coding. Let the men do the overnight work”. The days of the Eniac women pouring over their code in the wee hours were, once again, forgotten.

People would also use sociobiology as an excuse for excluding women from coding. According to this B.S., women were seen as less “biologically capable” of writing programs than men were (again, goes back to good ol’ B.S. gender norms) simply because, well, biology made them that way. Not only is this a bunch of bullcrap; it is historically inaccurate. Clive Thompson just spent several pages explaining how women reigned supreme at coding and programming languages, and biologists are just going to completely disprove what actually happened in the past? That’s more than unfortunate; it is purely unfair. However, in other countries, women do make up a greater percentage of programmers, such as India, where 40 percent of the coders are female, despite the more rigid gender roles in the country. In fact, parents in India encourage their daughters to pursue coding and women saw coding. Similarly, Malaysia’s women made up 52 percent of techies in 2001. In America, however, if women feel discouraged in the tech field, they leave it for other career opportunities. It’s not that these women aren’t skilled, far from it. Hell, they may be even more skilled than their male colleagues. But these women battle hurdles that their male coworkers didn’t have to, namely sexual harassment and not being given the credit they deserve. This has lead to some pretty terrible representation of women, with only 26 percent of them being in the tech field last year (the percentage of Black and Latino people in the tech field was also abysmally low). Thus, it’s not surprising that these intelligent capable women would decide to blow a big raspberry at Silicon Valley and leave for other opportunities.

So…What Are People Doing About This Issue?

In the late 1990s, Allan Fisher at Carnegie Mellon University addressed the lack of accessible courses for new coders by having experienced coders start on a different set of classes than the new coders. The new coders would have beginner classes, while the experienced coders would pick up where they left off in their learning. There was also extra tutoring offered to all students, which allowed new students a chance to catch up to their more advanced peers and ask any questions they had about their coursework. Fisher and the professors also taught the students about the real-world impact of coding to show them how software could improve people’s daily lives. This kept students from thinking all they had to look forward to was crunching numbers all day. The faculty adopted this new approach to the computer science curriculum because they realized that even though they at first placed experienced coders on a pedestal, they realized that those students were no better off than their less experienced peers, and that the less experienced coders had just as much potential to succeed as the more advanced students. And indeed, the university saw actual change happen in the department; the percentage of women in the computer science program rose from 6 percent to 42 percent and increased to that of the graduation rate for male students. Other schools like Harvey Mudd College followed suit, and pretty soon these computer science programs, which once were completely hostile environments for young eager women, were much more welcoming of female students.

And it’s not just universities; young women across the country have formed coding groups such as Black Girls Code in order to encourage more girls to pursue computer science. Social media has helped, too; on Facebook, you can join various coding communities geared towards getting more women into the field (someone I met told me about the Facebook group she joined for female coders). There are hackathons where coders are given 24 hours to create a new robot system, app or other technological innovation that would fix some sort of problem. On the Skillcrush blog, for instance, you can find a lot of great articles about freelance coding jobs, overcoming imposter syndrome and how to ace your job interview. Coding is an art form much like music, dance, poetry, literature and film; you are communicating a language that people normally don’t speak like in everyday society and it takes patience and persistence to communicate that language to the public. Many creatives learn programming skills; while coding is about numbers and logic, there are also so many different avenues for coding, such as digital marketing, graphic design and web development. And as I mentioned earlier, there are tons of online courses out there in programming languages, web design, and development. Some of these courses require you to pay a fee (such as Skillcrush and Treehugger) but a lot of them are free. Many coders also blog about technology-related topics to help coders, especially new coders, keep up with the latest technology trends and career paths for future techies.

However, the culture still needs to change. Thompson talks at the end of the piece about a group of young women in New York City who win a hackathon for creating a virtual-reality app to test children for signs of A.D.H.D. These young women’s parents came from India and encouraged their daughters to pursue technology as their career, so from a young age these girls developed a love for coding. However, after they won the competition, people would make them feel tokenized, saying that they only won because they were people of color and women. Akshaya Dinesh, one of the girls in the group, said that she enrolled at Stanford to study computer science and attended a tech conference there where it was all middle aged white and Asian men (she joked that she was never going to that conference again after seeing she was the only woman there). However, she says that she is hopeful that the tech culture will change its attitudes towards women.

Indeed, I am hopeful as well. As a creative, coding has opened quite a few doors for me in ways I didn’t expect. At first, I was learning it because I wanted to make more money, but after reading Thompson’s piece I have come to appreciate its real-world purpose and its application to the arts. Even though I got rid of my domain and no longer have my website up, I appreciate having the persistence and confidence to finish it even when I lost steam and the project wasn’t perfect. So for Clive Thompson, I say: thank you for publishing this incredible piece. I was practically shaking in my boots in excitement for it to come out and I finally got to read it! 🙂 And, finally, for all the female pioneers who coded behind the scenes and didn’t get credit for it until much later, I say: thank you.

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