Beyond the Bauhaus: Women, The Original Pioneers of Code

Like most professions in STEM fields, computer programmers suffer from the problem of the “default male,” in which the human described is automatically presumed to be a man. Decades of “draw-a-scientist” research indicate that participants overwhelmingly tend to depict scientists as men (although the number of scientists drawn as women has increased—to 28%). Even the word “designer” conjures images of men over 70% of the time (despite 61% of designers being women). The stereotype of the male programmer is pervasive and enduring in our present culture, but historically speaking, it is inaccurate. At the advent of the profession, women played a foundational role in the prehistory of coding, yet they are rarely credited for it. In Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, Janet Abbate writes that gender has played an unacknowledged role in the history of computing, shaping beliefs and practices on issues ranging from the nature of expertise to the purpose of computer science. Without women’s contributions, the profession would not exist as it does today.

Two women operating the ENIAC computer during World War II.

During World War II, women operated some of the first computational machines used for code-breaking. When digital computers began to become a reality in the 1940s, women were pioneers in writing software for the machines because it wasn’t high status work—yet. At the time, men in the computing industry believed the real glory was in building hardware. Writing code was seen as menial, secretarial work and was therefore delegated to women. The men figured out what they wanted the computer to do, and the women “programmed” it to execute the instructions. After the war, coding jobs exploded as companies began relying on software for tasks like processing payroll. Women were increasingly hired, even recruited, for programming jobs. By 1960, one in four programmers were women. In a way, gender bias and stereotypes worked in their favor. Employers looked for candidates who were logical, good at math and meticulous—which were seen as qualities women possessed because of their “expertise in activities in knitting and weaving.” Aptitude tests also helped to level the playing field. Arlene Gwendolyn Lee became one of the first black female coders in Canada, despite open discrimination at the time, because she placed in the 99th percentile. She later said, “I had it easy. The computer didn’t care that I was a woman or that I was black.”

Arlene Gwendolyn Lee, one of the first black female coders in Canada

The proportion of women in computing reached its peak at 35% in 1990. But by 2013, that number had fallen to its lowest point at 26%. Women left the profession in highly disproportionate numbers, a phenomenon one female computer scientist dubbed “the incredible shrinking pipeline.” So what changed? The shift was first seen in academia. A study that looked at the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University found that women were disparaged and disadvantaged in the classroom because, with the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, male students were more likely to arrive to college with some computing experience. Parents tended to purchase computers for their sons rather than their daughters, and boys were encouraged to tinker with them while girls were steered toward toys like dolls and play kitchens. This gave male students a head start in their computer science courses. Women also faced sexism in the classroom—they were viewed as not aggressive enough by their professors, and their raised hands were often ignored. This caused many women to doubt their abilities and drop out, despite being some of the best students. 

Women who did graduate faced an industry that was increasingly hostile to them. By the 1990s, coding culture was set. The stereotype of the geeky, white, male programmer was reinforced by movies, video games and corporate culture, so that’s who tended to be hired for coding jobs. Women faced an uphill battle in the workplace—they received more negative feedback than their male peers, experienced rampant sexism, and were often disparaged by their colleagues. They were rarely promoted and had few female mentors, so many left. Since then, the persistent assumption that the makeup of the coding workforce represents a meritocracy has prevented women from entering or advancing in the profession. Today, gender disparities and stereotypes continue to plague the tech industry, as evidenced by a 2017 Google employee who wrote an internal memo delineating the ways in which women’s “empathizing brains” prohibit them from thriving in computer programming. 

As a discipline that increasingly intersects with coding and technology, design is complicit in perpetuating many of the same gender stereotypes. According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, female designers are more likely to specialize in social design and illustration, while male designers dominate more technical areas such as AR/VR, interaction design, AI and data science. Code is the invisible structure with which all aspects of our modern society are built, from our economy and our politics, to our health and our relationships. If those who write and design with code are mostly male, then our world is being constructed from a mostly male viewpoint. As educators, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the structural inequities and biases that contribute to this disparity, and to strive to reverse it by providing equitable opportunities for all students. In technology-focused courses, we must:

  • accurately represent the history and trajectory of the computing profession,
  • ensure that students of all genders have equal access to the tools and skills required to learn to code,
  • mentor non-male students who show interest in coding, and encourage them to pursue their passion,
  • expose them to non-male leaders in the field and organizations like Black Girls Code and Code Newbie, and prepare students for the challenges they will face when entering an industry that marginalizes female and non-binary folks.

Women have begun to re-enter the coding and computing profession. Since 2013, the percentage of female undergraduates who plan to major in computer science has risen at rates not seen since the decline in the 80s. We have a long road ahead toward gender parity, but with our concerted efforts, the spark to change the culture of the technology industry can be ignited in our design classrooms today.


REFERENCES

Abbate, J. (2012). Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing. MIT Press.

AIGA 2019 Design Census. https://designcensus.org

Bradley, A., MacArthur, C., Hancock, M., Carpendale, S. (2015). “Gendered of Neutral? Considering the Language of HCI.” Graphics Interface Conference, Halifax, Nova Scotia, June 3-5, 2015.

Criado Perez, C. (2019). Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed For Men. Harry N. Abrams Publishing.

Margolis, J., Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing.MIT Press.Stanford University Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering and Environment. “Subtle Gender Bias and Institutional Barriers: Images of scientists are persistently masculine.” http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/institutions/bias.html

By Ali Place
Published February 13, 2020
Comments
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.