Gendered IT

1984: The year women stopped programming

Coman Hamilton
1950s computer via Shutterstock

There was once a time when women and men shared an equal interest in the programming world.

There was a time when being a developer did not mean you were probably a man. There was once a time when being a successful programmer was equally a female and male aspiration. It’s even said that the world’s first programmer was a woman.

But one year in the 1980s, gender roles in IT began to change. After 1984, the number of female computer science students began dropping rapidly. While Silicon Valley boomed along with the status of the developer, less and less women were taking the IT road. By 2005, the margin of female programming students had fallen lower than before 1980.

Via NPR. Source: National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR.

Graph via NPR. Source: National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges
Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR.

In a recent investigation into the matter, NPR’s Steve Henn attributes the change to the rise in home computers. “The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.”

A quick look at computer advertisements from the 1980s shows how computers were marketed at men.

Although this also meant cutting its potential customer base in half, computer manufacturers continued to see the man of the house as its main target audience.

Apple TV commercials from 1985 drove home the message that parents need to make sure their first-born son has a good computer. In one such ad, a young boy Brian decides he wants to become an astronaut: “His first giant step: learning to use an Apple.”

Not only that, but the introduction of male hackers and computer nerds (both cool and uncool) into the Hollywood plot compounded the male-dominated role in IT.

It’s no wonder that the real-world heroes of that generation were male computer professionals: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg.

Research among computer science students in the 1990s shows that the computer represented a strict gender divide in the home, as Henn writes. Even if girls showed an interest, the computer remained primarily a boy’s toy.

Female programmers in the 50s

The ever-changing relationship between gender and IT goes back to the Second World War. One of the first software company founders in the US, Elsie Shutt, was a woman. In 1958 Shutt founded a company that hired exclusively female programmers.

Shutt later recalled that during, and shortly after the war, programming was a common job for women. Then, “…as the men came back—and programming was an interesting job—the men did begin taking programming jobs.” Uncreative and monotonous “desk calculating” was left to women, while the more creative role of programming was (re)appropriated by men.

Today, the problem of gender divide has become so deeply rooted, that it not only continues to impact women’s interest in programming, but also the employer’s vision of the ideal employee. A recent scientific study showed that attractive women can improve their chances of getting a typically male role by drawing attention to their looks in the job interview.

Google, LinkedIn and Facebook have released diversity reports, all owning up to the fact that their IT departments have between 20% and 40% less women than men. But today’s computer science college programs and tech giants have a long way to go before they can restore the gender equality that IT once had before 1984.

Coman Hamilton
Coman was Editor of at S&S Media Group. He has a master's degree in cultural studies and has written and edited content for numerous news, tech and culture websites and magazines, as well as several ad agencies.

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