The current stereotype of a computer programmer or engineer is a young man, but this was hardly always the case. Initially, computer programming was felt to be a menial task of simply performing pre-determined calculations, and was considered women’s work. Nowadays, the tech world is completely different to what it was several decades back, and women have been largely side lined by men. A look at the past gives interesting insight into the role of ladies in computers, and how things have changed.
Pickering’s Harem and the ENIAC Girls
“Pickering’s Harem” was a group of women hired by Edward Charles Pickering in the late 1800’s to work at Harvard. They performed clerical work that was too tedious for male scholars and employees, at a fraction of what a man would have been paid.
Maths degrees were popular for women in the 1930s, and the idea that computing by hand was simple meant that these graduates found work doing it. When World War II broke out, female mathematicians were recruited to help with ballistics calculations. The 6 so-called “ENIAC Girls” worked on programmes for the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electric computer in the world.
As it became obvious that inputting computations into a machine presented more hiccups than doing them by hand, the women began problem solving on a daily basis and were soon assigned all mathematical aspects of coding. The ENIAC women joined forces with tenured Mathematics Professor Grace Hopper who had joined the Navy Reserve. Hopper had achieved a breakthrough when she found a way to programme computers with words not numbers, using a language called COBOL. Now software could be used on any hardware, and was finally acknowledged as just as important.
Ada Lovelace: World’s First Computer Programmer
Even before Harvard and the War Effort came Ada Lovelace, gifted mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron. She corresponded with Cambridge Mathematics professor Charles Babbage, who developed designs for an Analytical Engine. Though it was not constructed, Lovelace produced input that could be used to calculate Bernoulli numbers, a piece of work now considered the first computer programme in the world. A true visionary, she could see that numbers could be used to represent any data set, and that machines could manipulate those numbers.
Dipping Numbers and Moving Forward Now
Just after the War Effort, the ENIAC Girls and Hopper, women started disappearing from computing. While online casinos tend to employ equal numbers of males and females in all areas, this is certainly not the case everywhere, and has not been what happened historically. Men became more interested, the importance of software was recognised, and systems to edge females out including personality tests became commonplace. For computing to be a man’s work, it had to be made more prestigious.
Now we sit in a situation where women are underrepresented in engineering and technology, and their early achievements are barely remembered. Yet this is not only true in these fields; women struggle for recognition in management and leadership roles everywhere. In almost anything that isn’t a “caring profession” such as nursing, men are the dominant members of the workforce.
The toxic environment that workplace gender roles result in isn’t good for men, women or companies; several studies show that more integrated organisations perform better financially and deal with new challenges more productively. As the #metoo and #timesup movements gather momentum, it seems that now is when we should acknowledge these facts and start to create environments where everyone is able to live up to their potential. This is going to take time and it won’t be easy, but it will surely be worth it.