I’m listening to a podcast from NPR called, “When Women Stopped Coding”. It was recorded back in July 2016 and a friend just posted it to Facebook. With the success of Hidden Figures and learning about the women pioneers in programming, like Grace Hopper in my adult life, I had to listen immediately to find out, what gives?
The narrative where computers were for boys was hammered into my head as a child and I had NO idea THIS was why, for all the ‘smarts’ I had, I didn’t know computers were for people like me. Back in the 80’s all the commercials for computers were targeted for boys. Not one commercial or marketing campaign was directed towards girls. So, at that young age, I didn’t even make the connection that computers were something I could even understand. They seems so ephemeral, like Unicorns, Leprechauns and the Apple Lisa.
Besides the fact that we couldn’t afford one in our home, my mom did office work and at one point, had taken classes at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) and even graduated with a certificate in computer programming from Computer Learning Center (CLC). I remember when my mom took me to class with her at CCP and she was using this huge computer and had stacks and stacks of punch cards. I had no idea what she was doing or that one day, this would be my life.
Fast forward many years, 1994 to be exact. I started my first REAL job as a secretary for an insurance company. I had an IBM PS/2 on my desk. I used Lotus 123 & Word Perfect. My boss was a programmer by trade and really encouraged me to learn more about computers. He let me take training in networking and hardware. I learned so much, I was became the department hardware/software tech. As I learned more and grew more, I found my first job in tech in 1997.
Fast forward a few more years and I went back to college to major in Computer Science. Programming in C++ was foreign to me. I had no frame of reference and struggled. I was so intimidated and overwhelmed, I dropped out of the computer science program and got my bachelors degree in business.
The problem I see and I’m hearing repeated in this program, women were not groomed nor encouraged to be computer scientist. The verbiage, the prerequisite skills, the foundation or familiarity to even know that was a field that existed wasn’t taught to me. It was a ‘boys’ thing. No girls allowed. I went to a vocational high school and there was a computer tech major. In the beginning, the ratio was 55/45 (boys/girls), but by senior year (1990), that dropped down to 80/20. My husband was a computer science major in college and the same numbers were repeated there. Girls were dropping out of computer science and moving into other curriculum. We were were raised by single mothers and couldn’t afford to buy computers. This was just the norm where I came from. We didn’t our own computers until we were adults.
The commonality between the commercials for computers back in the 1980s and real life, computers were marketed to just boys. Men were the ones that were learning about and using computers. It seems like an exclusive club where women just weren’t openly invited. They weren’t turned away, but the grooming and cultivation tended to exists for males. Could it be that women were being ‘left out’ of the club?
A quote from the episode really rings true:
Once you have something like this happening, it reinforces itself. Computers are for boys. They are boy toys that boys use to do boy things. And this became a narrative, this story we told ourselves, like an actual story in movies. — Steve Henn, NPR
Even the movies we were growing up with were focusing on boys and computers. Hollywood, marketing and the media just continued to perpetuate this belief and it tended to follow young girls and women into their lives.
Jane Margolis, an education researcher has done studies on the disparity of women in coding. She speaks about the culture of how women are being told they are not good enough for this, “this belief that men are just better at this and they fit in better, a lot can shake your confidence.” She is so right about this. It’s pointless for us to try to fit our selves into spaces that don’t fit us. I don’t think we’re asking for men to conform, but to be inclusive, be open, listen and understand that we all have so much to contribute.
Fast forward to today. I’m a bit of a Unicorn in Information Technology (IT). I am a Systems Administrator. I manage servers, storage, networking and virtualization. I go to tech conferences and I can usually count the number of women I see and if I see another woman of color, I play a game of punch buggy with myself and smile. On the web development side, there are SO many woman. In my circles, I’m surrounded by so many smart, driven, talented women. I’m hoping that all the new focus on teaching STEM at an even earlier age will not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated. Coding is for EVERYONE! We all have a part to play in this field. Let’s make it a more welcoming and inclusive place for woman.