When Women Stopped Coding: Why 1984 Was Important and Why We Need A Narrative Shift
External imageImage via Webnomia
Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Most of the big names in technology are dudes. That’s just who has come to pop into our minds when we consider who is capable of the magic that is engineering and software development. And the stats don’t argue with this.
But a lot of computing pioneers, the ones who programmed the first digital computers, were women. And for decades, the number of women in computer science was growing. Bet you didn’t see that coming did you?
External imageElsie Shutt // Image via NPR
One prime example: a woman named Elsie Shutt founded one of the first software businesses in the US, CompInc., in 1958. And the programmers were all women. She was a big deal. She landed her first contract to work on the operating system for Honeywell’s new mainframe, and enlisted all the women she worked with to tackle the job together. CompInc. did really well, landing contracts with the US government, the Army Corp Engineers, and the US Space Program. Women were the center of the computing world.
But in 1984, something changed. The number of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even while the women studying other technical fields kept growing. And that’s where we are today. Welcome to 2014 folks.
What was going on in 1984 that made so many women give up on computer science? These shifts don’t come out of nowhere, there has to be some kind of action to push the reaction.
So here’s what was happening: 1984 was the year that a divide became clear between the coding haves and the have-nots. People who started coding earlier in life and messing around with computers went into university computer science classes with full force and confidence, and those that didn’t get the early exposure struggled not necessarily with knowledge and understanding but with a strong starting point. These people got left behind.
Owning a home computer became a kind of secret pre-requisite, a launching pad for success.
How does this fit into the gender divide? Home computers were advertized and available almost exclusively in a world of boys. Radio Shack sold them, and Star Trek made games for them. Ads selling computers almost exclusively showed boys. They were marketed as toys you could play games on, and entered the home the same way that Tonka trucks did. Computers became “for boys”.
This was the narrative. Boys in movies made things from computers. Journalists fell in love with geek boy culture. What does that mean for higher education? The computer science major became infused with the belief that men were just better at it. Women were slowly being pushed out of this world.
You can listen to NPR’s full podcast on how this narrative played out here, as part of their Planet Money series.
Flash forward to today.
According to TechRepublic women made up 26% of the computing workforce in 2013, and 3% of the computing workforce were black women, 5% were Asian women, and 2% were Hispanic women.
In the mid-1980s, 37% of computer science majors were women; in 2012, 18%. This was based on a study done by Google in June of this year.
Based on estimates from Q, an IT and Digital talent firm based in Los Angeles that specializes in tech talent in Southern California:
Out of every 100 software developers/engineers in Los Angeles, approximately 10-12 are female.
In 2011, only 17% of job placements (all for positions in technology in L.A.) were women.
Only 7% of developers hired through Q were women.
The world that is Silicon Valley today paints a very different picture than pre-1984. Both statistically, and narratively. And the two share cause-and-effect type links.
Women, being the minority in this case, are sometimes portrayed in the likes of Barbie- I Can Be A Computer Engineer, helpless damsels who break every piece of technology they touch. I mean, it’s cool and all that Barbie is going to be something other than an actress or Malibu dreamer in this case, but the good part of the book basically starts and ends at the front cover. After that, Barbie’s obviously more competent male friends take over and save her from the evil computer virus. Even (arguably) well-intentioned people sometimes make the situation worse rather than better. The narrative that began with nerdy male computer geeks in the 80s continues.
Barbie herself (aka Mattel toys) has since apologized for doing the opposite of inspiring and empowering young girls, and in a more boring world that would be that. But luckily we live in a world where we have since been blessed with the ability to edit Computer Engineer Barbie to make it better, which has lead to some fantastic #feministhackerbarbie memes. Changing the narrative has taken on a fantastically literal meaning.
Women breaking into the world of tech has become a gigantic project we need to fulfill in terms of numbers. In reality, it’s a cultural shift and an attitude adjustment that will make the most difference. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but for technology, in this case, (dare I say it?) we need to go back to the way things were pre-80s.
In order to change the way we think about women in tech, we need a shift in norms. So what are the norms we can shift? It’s the whole “You play well, for a girl” scenario. People need to stop being surprised when a women is a good software engineer, and that will eliminate some of the barriers for others to follow. Who or what will be the equality juggernaut that breaks through the maddening cultural barriers and level the playing field? ‘Cause girls can play ball, you just have to give them the same coaching as every other member of the team and a chance at bat.
So where do we start? One hypothesis is that university degrees in computer science and engineering receive far fewer female than male students, and this can account for the lack of females in the tech industry later on. The university theory attributes the drop off in female interest in technology to be later in life.
But is that really the point at which interest begins? It may be when it peaks, but we begin developing our ideas about who we want to be from very early stages of life. If you believe in kindergarden that all women are culturally destined to become this-that-or-the-other cog in the industrial machine that is the job force, you are less likely to break from that later on. We’re back to to the 1984 narrative-shift.
Our ideas certainly develop over time. I have come to squelch my childhood dreams of becoming a Riverdancer and a fire fighter simultaneously, smiply because I have become an “adult” (emphasis on the quotation marks) and now understand that that is not realistic. But if anyone ever told me I couldn’t be a computer programmer for reasons that are simply not true, I might have believed them at that early and vulnerable stage in my life.
What you’re seeing, experiencing, and absorbing when you are three-years-old matters. Toy companies are starting to get that more and more, and taking advantage of the fact that parents will do anything if they think it will make their child a genius. Because Mozart makes babies smarter. This is the kind of thinking Computer Engineer Barbie tried and failed to utilize.
Image via Rotten Tomatoes
This is something a lot of people can get on board with, and has lead to an increase in the neutralization of toys. In the past, the boys section of Toys R Us looked like a fun and diverse collumn of knoweldge and entertainment, and the girl’s section looked like the inside of a unicorn. More and more, toys are entering the game and leveling the playing field, toys that allow girls to create and solve things, the same way that toys in the boy’s aisle have been engineered to do for a long time. Basically, Lincoln Logs are for everyone now.
Before you get too excited, there are two sides to this debate, and we still have a ways to go. Just when you thought you had all the answers to the educational gender-gap.
Side one: we should take tech and engineering toys that were made for boys, dress them up, and turn them into toys that are appealing to girls. Goldie Blox is an impressive series of books and construction toys designed specifically for girls. They’re webiste boldly states “building toys aren’t just for boys”. And they’re right. But leave it to the internet to take something seemingly great and uncomplicated and make you think about it too much.
Side two: we should make these toys gender equal rather than draping things in pink and sparkles to make girls take interest. Consider this side the war on pink. And the pink aisle has gotten a lot pinker over the years. Why are we distinguishing between genders? Why do girls have to be coddled and catered to? They don’t need extra stuff to be interested in something. Toys that try to catch girls’ eyes with color and pop are simplifying things too much and perpetuating stereotypes rahter than neutralizing them. It’s sexist.
Sides aside, most experts agree that the pink aisle does have a negative impact on girls’ interest in the STEM subjects. “Wanting to be a doctor or architect or cook, that really begins when you’re young and walking around with a stethoscope or playing with an Easy Bake oven,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of toy industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts.
By the time kids reach third grade, there’s a significant divide between boys and girls when it comes to STEM-related ambitions. A 2009 poll by the American Society for Quality of children 8 to 17, 24 percent of boys said they were interested in a career engineering, but only five percent of girls said the same. The gender difference in math and science is a bi-product of culture, not biology.
But we also know that all of the cute baby-dolls and fake vacuum cleanders aren’t discouraging women from going to college or making mean progress in the workplace later in life. Women now make up the majority of students entering undergraduate education in America, and are attending law school in equal numbers as their male counterparts.
I guess the moral of the story is that we’re doing alright, but it wouldn’t hurt to make the toy aisles a little more diverse, and, hey pop culture, maybe highlight some more female role models in STEM fields while you’re at it. Jimmy Neutron is cool and all, but maybe the next Bill Nye the Science Guy should be a girl.
Ultimately, there is no reason for anyone to feel like they can’t do anything. Anyone should be able to get a manicure and then use those manicured hands to create amazing and complex code. Anyone should be able to play with Transformers and then go into a career in fashion design. You don’t have to be a brunett with glasses to be smart (what’s up Velma from Scooby Doo and Gretchen from Recess) but you totally can be. If Computer Engineer Barbie had been written and characterized properly, it could have been a huge success for young girls everywhere who want to wear pink, dye their hair blonde, play with princess dolls, and become coders. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. But a lot of players are entering the arena and things are heating up. Change is in the air. It’s about eliminating barriers and making all options available to everyone.
This little girl put it best: why should all the little girls have to buy princesses and boys have to buy superheroes when both girls and boys should be able to like superheroes and princesses? You go Riley. Smash all the toy aisles together!
Women who code is one topic among the dozens the grand debate of gender divisions, and this is a debate that may never be “over”.
Consider this an ode to women past who started the computer engineering fire, a cheers to the future women who will continue to throw sticks on it, and a hope that everyone will stop telling other people what to be good at.
Originally posted on the LendLayer blog.