Women and Computing

One of the never-ending subjects of Free Software is “Where are the Women?” While I see it as mostly a non-problem — that is, there are some obvious problems that need to be fixed with time, but no one is going to rectify them right now — I’m doing what I can to encourage my daughters and son in the field. In the meantime, The Decline of Women in Computer Science from 1940-1982 has some fascinating anecdotes:

Computing was unique, however, in the sense that the fledgling profession was still in its infancy and had no strong pre-war gender socialization.  This fact must have helped the women in that the returning men lacked programming expertise, and clearly had no expectation of “returning” to a programming job.  The lack of structure in the industry was also a boon to women programmers who wanted to continue working even after they became pregnant and had children.  Most notably, “Computations, Inc., of Harvard, Massachusetts (outside Route 128), formed in 1958 by Elsie Shutt and several other programmer-mothers who worked part-time and largely at home on problems contracted out to them by their former employers, such as Minneapolis-Honeywell and Raytheon”.  These women, widely known as the “Pregnant Programmers” were mentioned by speaker Richard H. Bolt at the M.I.T Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering in 1964.  Bolt, who was a lecturer in Political Science at M.I.T and also a former Associate Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1960-1963, also mentioned the following:

“I asked one of the unmarried women, a computer programmer in industry, if she thought a woman’s activities as a mother and homemaker would interfere with her opportunities in a career.  ‘One good thing about programming,’ she said, ‘is that you can work part time.’”

3 thoughts on “Women and Computing”

  1. Re: history

    “Don’t settle for the status quo.”

    (Sorry, my inner gammarian coming out…)

    I would suggest reading the paper before assuming what it says.

    I’m not at all convinced that the status quo is wrong. Observing that the number of men and women in the free software world is very disproportionate does not automatically lead me to the conclusion that there is some injustice that needs to be corrected. I need more data.

    1. Here to grant your wish!

      This is not the first comment I have heard this week from people who appear to be entangled in technology. Oops, I just realized that to write more would be hypocritical.

      Ok, I’ll do it anyway: you make yourself sound like a slave to your television! You can get rid of it any second! You especially would have to admit that you keep it around for entertainment as any useful information you might glean from it you could obtain from the internet (another trap, IMHO). So maybe I’m arguing that if you want to and can, you should?

      Have you read Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death? I’m already pretty anti-television but this book took me a step further, especially regarding my [responsibility to my] children.

      From my computer-imposed cage, I can still see a better life out there — glimpsing a ray of sunlight through a chink, as it were — and it mostly involves nature. I see my life as a television owner as a much smaller cage.

      And, to end on a positive note, since my children have no television viewing time and very little movie- they would be glued to the screen if I were to, for example, put on a DVD of a man standing in front of a chalkboard talking about math problems. A mixed blessing but I hope to use it to my advantage — if no better way is apparent.

    2. As one without faith I’m hesitant to ask, but… is, perhaps, this an example of the difficulties in the trade-offs between faith versus works?

      Seems like there’s a lot of folks out there loudly professing faith who aren’t doing the works that’d be evidence of their faith. And the contrapositive.

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