Missy recently interviewed at a small tech startup based in Brooklyn. Missy is a recent college graduate at a top school. She majored in computer science, and her experience already makes her a top prospect — especially in a field often criticized for its lack of diversity.
“I’ve been interviewing with company after company, and frankly they’re falling all over themselves trying to recruit me,” Missy tells me. “Of course, I’m a good programmer with a lot of experience despite being young. But I also think it’s because as a female minority, I’m a hot commodity in an industry that doesn’t have many women in its ranks as it should.”
Missy sounds bold, but she speaks the truth. Silicon Valley has a paucity of women in its ranks, particularly among programmers and engineers. According to Business Insider, women hold just one-in-ten executive positions in Silicon Valley firms. Just slightly over one-in-ten engineers working at tech companies are women.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of modern computing, women filled the ranks of software programmers and computer science classes at a much higher rate than they do now. And these early days may hold some lessons in how to get more women involved in science and engineering now.
The world’s first computer programmer was actually a woman: Lady Ada Lovelace — a 19th-century aristocrat who was also Romantic poet Lord Byron’s daughter — was one of the early female pioneers in computer science.
Lovelace had many successors, many of whom were initially overlooked in the history of science. The foremost among them was Grace Hopper, a U.S. Navy admiral who also worked on the Mark I, one of the first computers.
Born in New York in 1906 into a military family, Hopper showed an innate curiosity about how machines worked, even as a child. She liked to take apart alarm clocks as a kid to figure out how they worked.
She went to college at Vassar, where she earned bachelor’s in math and physics in 1928, and then to Yale, where she earned her doctorate in 1934.
When World War II broke out, Hopper, who was teaching math at Vassar, enlisted in the Navy Reserve. She was assigned to the computation unit at Harvard, where she worked on the Mark I.
Hopper worked on the punch cards and tape that fed the computer. Back then, computer scientists had to manually input calculations for computers onto cards, which featured long sequences of instructions.
Often these programs were lengthy and laborious. If a computer had to repeat a calculation, it had to be manually re-entered again on the tape or card. Programmers had yet to figure out how to create loops and other techniques that cut down on the number of repetitive tasks.
Hopper remained with the Harvard Mark I computing unit as a research fellow after the war ended. In 1949, she was hired by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she worked on the first computer compiler, which translates source code into lower-level programming languages to make calculations faster.
Five years later, she became the company’s first director of computing programs, where she and her department released some of the world’s first programming languages.
Hopper created a key innovation during this period — she figured out to tell computers what to do using words instead of numbers, which made it easier to create a language that could be used on any piece of hardware, rather than create cards that could only be used on specific machines. This made software truly portable.
A few years later, she served on an industry committee to create standards for the flourishing field of computer languages, which began to proliferate as companies jumped into computing. Reflecting her penchant for straightforward practicality, Hopper advocated for languages that resembled English, rather than machine languages. Eventually the committee’s work led to the COBOL language, still in use today.
Hopper received accolades and recognition within the Navy, eventually rising to the ranks as an Admiral. She also began lecturing on the history of computing, where she tried to inspire many young people to take up programming with her lively, anecdote-filled speeches.
Throughout her career, Hopper was known to be no-nonsense, tough, irreverent and confident — and she hated being singled out for her gender. Instead, she encouraged young people to pursue their curiosity and be persistent — many of the qualities her own career epitomized.
As Hopper worked on the Mark I computer, a group of women were working on the ENIAC supercomputer during the war in Philadelphia, making the machine perform complex mathematical operations in hopes of contributing hard science to the war effort.
The Army needed to calculate the trajectory of ballistic missiles using advanced calculus equations that took mathematicians 30 hours to complete, according to magazine Mental Floss.
In hopes of speeding up the work, the Army leaned on computers and recruited any mathematician it could find to program them — even female math majors who hadn’t yet finished college. Among these recruits were six women — Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence.
These women had their work cut out for them. There were no languages, protocols or schematics in place for them to follow. They had to invent these in order to work on the ENIAC. They broke down complex equations into smaller steps and figured out how the machine worked and how to feed it equations. They also had to physically wire the machine to carry out the math — hard, complicated, tedious work.
Yet the final result was a feat of engineering that made the front page of the newspapers in 1946. According to Mental Floss, most of the credit went to the hardware engineers and companies — the women programmers were not even credited for their achievement and role.
Though their achievement played a key role in a seminal chapter of scientific history, the women of ENIAC woud wait for years to get much credit. Even when ENIAC celebrated its 50th anniversary in the 1990s, the women programmers were not included in the public celebrations.
Despite this, many of the women who worked on ENIAC stayed on in their careers as programmers and went on to pioneer even more innovations. They often had to — though women returned home after the World War in order for men to work, the only people who knew how to program the ENIAC were its six women.
The ENIAC women went on to teach modern computer programming, created new protocols and data manipulation techniques and even helped to create the first commercial computers — a lasting legacy that many still don’t know today.
Why were women so prominent in the early days of computer programming? According to Walter Jacobson in his book The Innovators, most men in the field of computing in its early days saw programming as “soft,” as not as prestigious and important as developing hardware.
Setting up machines to execute calculations upon data — which is what programming does at its essence — was seen as clerical work, like typing, stenography and switchboard operating.
“Men were interested in building, the hardware, doing the circuits, figuring out the machinery,” Isaacson told NPR. “And women were very good mathematicians back then.” In fact, women math majors were fairly common in the 1930s, according to Isaacson, though most of these women went on to teach math in schools.
Women who did program computers continued to contribute in the early days of computing, developing and researching new programming languages. They seemed poised to stake out a strong space among their male colleagues as computing developed.
In fact, women’s magazine Cosmopolitan touted computers as a great career for women in the 1960s, pointing out the opportunity available to so-called “computer girls,” according to Stanford University.
Yet women’s participation and employment in computing, science and engineering industries has actually shrunk over the years, even as their educational and work opportunities increased.
What happened? In some ways, computer scientists realized that programming was more than just setting up machines — it was a rich, complicated science, full of intellectual challenge.
Male computer scientists also sought to beef up the prestige of programming eventually, according to Stanford’s historical research. They created professional associations and awards to tout their accomplishments — and a few even began campaigns to attribute errors to their female counterparts.
The nascent field of computer programming became masculinized, and women began to drop out from it. The trend took its toll. According to NPR, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from almost 40 percent at its peak to around 17 percent now.
These days, the problem begins even earlier, well before college and entering the job force. Though girls start off as strong as boys in math and science when they’re young, they begin to fall out as they get older. By the time they get to college, female majors in the subjects have dropped.
Much of this is attributed to lack of encouragement and mentorship, lack of role models and academic environments where girls aren’t free to take risks and possibly fail.
“I do think, from my point-of-view, that women aren’t as encouraged as men in math and engineering classes,” Missy believes. “I’m not sure if it’s because these are men that are pretty uneasy around women in general, if boys just tend to band together, or if it’s an innate belief that women aren’t good at these subjects. If you’re a woman in these classes, you have to be pretty tough and aggressive — but not too aggressive — to get attention and support.”
Missy says she’s often reluctant to voice her opinions like these “because no one wants to hear people whine,” she says. “But when you have the president of a school like Harvard saying women don’t have the aptitude for math or science, you know he’s just saying what many men are thinking.”
Missy refers to a high-profile incident in 2005 where Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, attempted to explain the lower participation of women in science and math as a result of their biological differences from men. His comments inspired furor and outrage from the public.
Missy remembers hearing about Summers’ remarks in high school, and they had a lasting impression on her. “You hear something like that and the anger can fuel you, like you want to prove them wrong,” she says. “But then again, you get angry because why should you deal with this gender pressure in addition to the challenge of just mastering your subject? When someone who’s supposedly educated and intelligent says something like that, it’s just fuel for someone less intelligent who’s looking to knock women down a little.”
Yet many hope to reverse the historical trend and reignite women’s role in STEM industries. It’s not just a question of social justice — if the tech industry wants to reach untapped markets, it needs makers that represents the wider audiences they want to reach.
A host of initiatives are in place to boost girls’ interests in STEM fields and subjects like programming. Groups like Girls Who Code want to boost young girls’ interest in programming, and existing organizations like Girl Scouts are creating special badges and projects that focus on tech subjects like app development and gaming.
Professional groups are creating special efforts to introduce young girls to women working in tech, so that they see computer and engineering careers as a viable option. There’s even an Ada Lovelace Day to tout the accomplishments of past women in technology.
But women in tech now still have to contend with problems if they decide to enter the industry. The new stereotype of a tech worker isn’t a harmless geek, but a so-called “brogrammer” that brings a sexist, frat-guy mentality to the industry — complete with strippers, sexist comments and objectification of women.
The new subculture has been detailed in accounts by authors such as Katherine Losse, who details the early days of Facebook in her book “Boy Kings.” Even if a woman flourishes in STEM subjects in college, she might find working with a cadre of brogrammers an unappealing prospect.
Some companies are doing their part to create workforces as diverse as the world they hope will buy their products. Intel earlier this year announced a plan to create a company that reflects the world’s diversity by 2020, and promised to hire more women and non-white workers in their ranks, according to USA Today.
And it’s putting serious heft into the promise, creating a $300 million fund just for its 2020 initiative and tying its leaders’ compensation with the fulfillment of this goal. It’s also pledging money to fund initiatives to boost girls’ interest and participation in computing and gaming, understanding that solving Silicon Valley’s diversity problem will take time and effort on multiple fronts.
In the meantime, women like Missy are putting their heads down and “getting the job done,” as she says. Like Hopper, she’s no-nonsense and straightforward, a tomboy who feels ambiguous about being singled out for her gender. But she has her doubts whether simply getting more women into tech jobs is a final solution.
“Tech jobs are ultimately about performance, and you hope your work speaks for itself,” Missy says. “You’d like to think the best coder gets the job, and once they get into the office, everyone — women and men — has to prove themselves. It’s a lot of work, a lot of pressure, not a lot of balance in life. The culture can be toxic, especially if you have a life outside of work — which most women do.”
Missy points to her last internship, at a company where she says most women took jobs “lower on the rungs” because they required fewer hours than the better-paid engineering and programming jobs.
“It’s grueling, frankly, and sometimes you wonder if these companies are simply not woman-friendly in general in terms of hours and policies,” she says. There were no women with families in senior positions, she says, “and that’s discouraging because most women do want families.”
But Missy believes ultimately, that’s why more women are necessary in tech. “It’s not just social justice and equality,” she believes. “Women ultimately make a company better. They make the culture better, they make policies like family leave and on-site daycare a priority, and they help dial down the ‘frat bro’ factor. And that can’t happen unless we get more of them into the office in the first place.”
Young women like Sanchez, who have a passion for computing and programming, would rather “be left alone to work,” Sanchez says. “But I guess I have to be some kind of trailblazer at the same time. Which is fine — though I hope I don’t always have to be. I just want to write code and make stuff, you know? I just want to work and do my thing.” She sounds like any other passionate coder or engineer, regardless of their gender. ♦