How We Lost the Women in Computing

Moshe Vardi:

But the general ignorance of computing history goes deeper. The early programmers were women because until the development of electronic computers, computing used to be a human job; computers were humans who computed. Computing required precision and patience, and most pre-ENIAC human computers were female. Specifically, women played a key role in code breaking, which has had an intimate connection with computing. Three recent books describe this key role played by women in cryptology. Women Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, by Kerry Howard,bdeciphers the legacy of British women code-breakers in World War II. Code Girls, by Liza Mundy, tells the story of over 11,000 women, who comprised more than 70% of all U.S. code breakers during that war. The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, by Jason Fagone, chronicles the life of Elizabeth Smith Friedman, who played a leading role in U.S. cryptanalysis for 40 years.

Another recent book, Brotopia, by Emily Chang, describes how “Silicon Valley disrupts everything but the Boys’ Club.” “From its earliest days,” Chang writes, “the industry has self-selected for men: first, antisocial nerds, then, decades later, self-confident and risk-taking bros.” As a prelude, I suggest reading the Vanity Fair disputed excerpt,c featuring Chang’s reporting about “exclusive, drug-fueled, sex-laced parties” where women are preyed upon. But the controversial sex parties are a small part of Silicon Valley’s problems. The main story of the book is of a culture is that highly hostile to women.

A.T. Wynn and S.J. Correll, two Stanford sociologists, reach the same conclusion in their recent paper in Social Studies of Science, titled “Puncturing the pipeline: Do technology companies alienate women in recruiting sessions?”d Using original observational data from recruiting sessions hosted by technology companies, they found that company representatives often engage in behaviors known to create a chilly environment for women. They concluded that representatives “may puncture the recruiting pipeline, lessening the interest of women at the point of recruitment into technology careers.”

One may think these problems are specific to Silicon Valley, but the recent #MeToo movement made it clear that academic environments can also be hostile to women. I urge you to read ‘What Happens to Us Does Not Happen to Most of You,’e where Kathryn McKinley provides “a personal account of sexism, harassment, and racism that I and some anonymous members of the computer-architecture community have experienced.”