Women Have Been in Tech Since the Beginning by@abbeyperini

Women Have Been in Tech Since the Beginning

"In this powerful article, Abbey Perini reveals the truth about the stigma and weight that women have been dealing with in the teach industry for years." "A brilliant and well-researched article on the vital part women played in the history of computing."
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Abbey Perini

Full-stack web developer, crafter, blogger, cosplayer, fiber artist, yoga teacher, and gamer

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This is not a blog I anticipated writing. My plan was to let Women's History Month pass me by as much as possible.


...but I'm tired.

I am tired.

From March 2020 to August 2020, I started learning to code basically in isolation. I talked about it a lot to my husband and some with a few friends, but I hadn't joined any communities. I wasn't blogging or on Twitter. I didn't find out CSS was supposed to be hard and annoying until I was already in love with it.


That was a blessing.


Because what came after - the last year and a half I've been coding in public, networking, and employed as a developer has included a series of othering comments, attitudes, and assumptions. Believe me, I understand that if my skin color wasn't this shade of printer-paper white, it would be markedly worse.


That makes me even more tired.


Some comments are well-meaning. There's a trend I've been referring to as "making me out to be a unicorn" that I just smile and nod through.


"It's so nice to see a female developer!"

"We need more women developers!"

"You're a shining example of what a female developer can do."


Let's break that last one down. Stereotype threat is a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's group applies” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Which means, merely by pointing out that there is a stereotype about a group you can trigger underperformance in an individual in that group. In someone prone to perfectionism or overachieving, the idea that any failure on their part will be used as further evidence for the stereotype can be absolutely paralyzing.


Another one I got a lot was "it'll be easy for you to get a job because you're a diversity hire!"

While usually said to encourage me, what these people don't realize is being marked as a diversity hire is a harmful stigma. Immediately, people assume you weren't hired because of merit. Plus, thanks to the bungling of affirmative action laws, people assume "diversity candidates" are getting an easier ride, but minorities have plenty of hurdles to jump before getting to the interview stage. Plus, there are people out there actively making it harder for these candidates. We've all seen the FAANG hiring manager confession on blind at this point.

The similar but more insidious comments made by hiring managers were like "We can't keep women developers because of other companies' diversity quotas."


Still, these comments are easy to shrug off. These people aren't trying to highlight the systematic inequalities inherent in my field. Hiring managers often don't understand the realities of the labor market, and a comment like that last one lets you know the company culture probably isn't inclusive. The state of U.S. hiring in general is a quagmire that needs serious reform.


It's the other comments that are more difficult to deal with.


"Your husband clearly does all your work for you."


"Why not take advantage of the fact that they assume you're less competent because you're a woman?"


The assumptions and attitudes are worse and harder to call out.


More often than not, I was expected to take on glue work like scheduling, taking notes, and project management by default. It was often assumed I would want to take on less technical roles while I interviewed. I find a surprising amount of people assume I'm not technical and over-explain things to me. Worse are the people who explain my own work and conclusions back to me. When I've observed I'm being interrupted all the time and not taken seriously, I'm told it's because of my language and how to correct it.


When I get a blog that has a couple thousand views or more, I often get weird messages, hit on, or sexually harassed through my portfolio site. Even worse, after years of being a woman on the internet and in male-dominated spaces, I knew to expect it.


It adds up.


It's not made easier by the way I wonder if I would have been programming in middle and high school if anyone had encouraged my natural interest in these subjects the way they did my male peers. Instead they actively discouraged it.


Nor am I encouraged by the pregnancy discrimination and pay gaps in and out of tech.


I am exhausted by the stereotype that front-end and CSS are easier and therefore more suited to women.


Let's not forget about the cycle of Twitter threads full of comments about how women just aren't suited to tech. I shudder at the thought of the DMs of women in tech with large followings.


These are just a few of the patterns I've seen in the last year and a half. There are more.


Continually, the advice is to ignore it. Just keep shrugging it off. Don't let them get to you. Don't feed the trolls.

...but I'm tired.


They simply don't have the right to other us. We've been here since the beginning. There was a time when men were ignoring low-paying programming jobs for high-paying hardware jobs and women were encouraged to study math and computer science.

History of Women in Programming

Ada Lovelace was the first programmer. In fact, she wrote the first machine algorithm and died long before a computer that could run it was built.


In the 1940's, WWII drove interest and funding for computers. Dr. Grace Hopper started her long and influential career by helping develop the Mark I for IBM and the Navy. She pioneered using English instead of math in programming languages and in 1991, she was awarded the National Medal of Technology by George Bush.


Meanwhile, the U.S. military supported two men in building the ENAIC to calculate firing trajectories. The 100 or so women they had on staff doing the math by hand (called computers) took too long.


It seemed natural to them to hire women to write the computing instructions for the ENAIC. The team included Jean Jennings Bartik (who lead the development of computer storage and memory), Frances Elizabeth “Betty” Holberton (who created the first software application), Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Kathleen “Kay” McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. They were all instrumental in teaching others to program after the war.


There were no instruction manuals. These women invented the programming for this computer from scratch. At first, they didn't have access to the machine itself and were expected to do their work on paper. They worked long hours right up until the demo to get it working. They got no credit. They weren't invited to the celebration dinner. No one knew their names for 50 years, and the person who brought their names to light (and created the documentary) was originally told that they were models.


After the ENAIC, the stereotype was women were more suited to programming - then seen as clerical work. In the 1950's, IBM had recruitment pamphlets called "My Fair Ladies" because tech companies used to recruit women with no experience and train them up as programmers. In 1953, Raytheon's programming workforce was 50% women. Upon joining, Elsie Schutt remembers "it really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work!"


When Elsie Schutt was forced to leave her job by state law because she had a child, she founded Computations Inc. and taught women to code so they could work part time writing software. At the same time Mary Allen Wilkes was being pushed into a computer science career. She wanted to be a lawyer.


By the time she joined the team building the LINC, the world's first personal computer, in 1961, more than one in four programmers in the U.S. were women. (Keep in mind - Schutt had to quit her job for having a kid 4 years earlier.) In 1963, Datamation, a computer magazine, published a story saying "women have greater patience than men and are better at details, two prerequisites for the allegedly successful programmer." In 1967, Cosmopolitan ran a story called "The Computer Girls" by Lois Mandel. In it, Dr. Grace Hopper is quoted saying "It’s just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”


This is around the same time as the subject matter of Hidden Figures. One of the women portrayed in that book and film, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, started as a computer at NASA and would become an expert in FORTRAN. Around the same time, a black woman named Arlene Gwendolyn Lee was one of the first women programmers in Canada. Her son tells it best.


A study came out in the 1960s that found that male programmers were defined by a disinterest in people. A later study found this to be true of women, as well, but that was ignored and tech companies had begun designing their candidate selection process around the anti-social white male nerd stereotype. At the same time, a field that had once been called the "pink ghetto" was gaining importance, and with it, rising salaries. In 1969, IBM changed their recruiting pamphlet title to "Are YOU the man to command electronic giants?"


That same year, Elizabeth "Jake" Feinler joined the ARPANET project, the first wide-area packet-switched network with distributed control. She and the team she managed were instrumental in standardizing and growing the network. The top-level domain names .com, .gov, .org, .net, and .edu are part of their work.


In 1972, Pamela Hardt-English got her hands on a decommissioned SDS 940 mainframe computer from Transamerica. Driven by a desire to create a shared resources center for her commune, she created an early prototype of the internet. Sherry Reson, Mary Janowitz, and Joan Lefkowitz built a shared directory on top of that. Another team turned that work into Community Memory, the first computerized bulletin board. This project was eventually maintained by Jude Milhon, one of the founding members of Cypherpunks.


In 1984, 37.1% of students graduating with computer science or information science degrees were women. That same year, Radia Perlman wrote the Spanning Tree Protocol, fundamental to network bridges and routing protocols, and thus LAN and the internet.


In the mid-80's, the percentage of women enrolled in computer science tanked. Researchers found now that home computers were being sold, they were being marketed as boys' toys. So the boys were showing up to college with much more programming experience than they had previously. The classroom culture became hostile to those who hadn't been programming before enrolling in Computer Science 101. In the 1980's, media began selling the programmer stereotype we all know today. More and more tech companies changed their hiring criteria and used the new demands of long hours and "culture-fit" to exclude anyone who didn't fit that increasingly popular anti-social white male nerd stereotype.


By the mid-90's five or fewer women would be in a class of 20 computer science students. In addition to being told they wouldn't make it if they hadn't already been programming, they faced harassment, sexism, and isolation. Women continued to contribute great things - there are too many names and stories for me to cover here. In spite of this, the perception became programming is a man's world. Once it became profitable, society strove to erase women and their contributions from the programming world.


This is all very U.S.-centric, as well. In India, China, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, and Romania more women than men are enrolling in Computer Science.

Conclusion: How Can We Support Women in Tech?

Originally, Knitting as Programming was twice as long and half about the history of women in programming. I was already feeling the weight of the stereotypes and anger about the erasure of women programmers a year ago.


Unfortunately, I have no real conclusion, just questions - Am I negotiating my salary and compensation hard enough? How can I in good conscience recommend this career path to women when 50% of women leave their tech job by 35? Should I mention they'll need to cultivate more self-confidence and try harder than their male counterparts? Why do we keep using the term imposter syndrome to excuse the culture of othering women and minorities in tech? Why do people think women can fix any of this by changing their language or attitude? What kind of backlash will I receive for writing this?

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