Saturday, August 06, 2011

Women in Computer Science: Early Programmers were Women

A quick follow-up to this post. Read Brenda Frink post -- Researcher reveals how “Computer Geeks” replaced “Computer Girls” -- about the work of historian Nathan Ensmenger, author of The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise:

It’s true [...] that the very first programmers were women and that the field remained open to women for many years thereafter. In the early 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on its ENIAC machine, which was one of the world’s first electronic computers. These six women, known by contemporaries as the “ENIAC girls,” were charged with “setting up” the ENIAC to perform computation tasks. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first computer programmers.

However, says Ensmenger, the presence of these women did not indicate that managers of the ENIAC project had modern attitudes toward women in the workforce. Rather, managers hired women because they expected programming to be a low-skill clerical function, akin to filing, typing, or telephone switching. Assuming that the real “brain work” in electronic computing would be limited to the hardware side, managers reserved these tasks for male engineers.

The idea that the development of software was less important (and less masculine), than the development of hardware persisted for many years and women continued to work as computer programmers. Employers, says Ensmenger, were in for a surprise when they discovered a truth that we now take for granted: “Programming,” he says with a smile, “is hard.” The women involved in the ENIAC project distinguished themselves by engaging in complex problem-solving tasks and by advising their male colleagues on hardware improvements. For example, Betty Holbertson convinced skeptical engineers to include a “stop instruction” in order to guard against human error.

As the intellectual challenge of writing efficient code became apparent, employers began to train men as computer programmers. Rather than equating programming with clerical work, employers now compared it to male-stereotyped activities such as chess-playing or mathematics.