Technology is heroically attributed to man. Man is the inventor, the maker, the repairer of technology and woman is little more but a user of it. Yet if the genealogy of technology were revealed as it was, we’d stumble upon Lady Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. We’d find that the technicians that wrote the code for the first programmable computer was an all-female team who solved many of the problems that form the basis of software as we know it today. We’d realize that technology was masculinised in such ways that boys were incentivised in education and parenting to engage with computers whereas girls weren’t.
Throughout the post-war period coding was a popular occupation for women; according to American federal government statistics[i], one in four women were programmers in the 1960s. Of course, programming was not yet considered ‘high-status’ work. On the contrary writing code for the ‘software’ was a menial and secretarial task. As Clive Thompson reports in his New York Times article[ii], the first programmable computer was a behemoth thing – it weighed over 30 tons and it had approximately 18,000 vacuum tubes – the real manly engineering feat was getting the monster ‘hardware’ to work. There were also more female students graduating with a computer and information science degree; 37% in 1985 in comparison to 18% in 2017[iii]. But when, how and why was technology masculinised?
Although it’s hard to find an exact turning point, the gender gap in undergraduate computer science degrees became noticeable from 1984 onwards as women’s enrolment began to steeply decline. One of the reasons was the insertion of computers in the home in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas mid-80s college freshmen were proficient programmers, as they had played around with personal computers, the previous generation had never even touched one. Social scientist Jane Margolis[iv] found that males received more exposure to computers than girls, being twice as likely to be gifted one by their parents. Moreover, Hollywood pushed the masculinisation even further through movies[v] that stereotyped computer science students as white, male and myopically obsessed with computers. By default, video games were also in the male terrain, and games were – and continue to be – pitched and designed for males. Under the ‘gaze’ of the dominant social imaginaries, female computer science students didn’t belong. Nothing about them corresponded with the stereotype of the acerbic nerd and the early pioneering work of female programmers was long forgotten.
The strong masculinist tenets that were practically injected in the very essence of technology persist today. However, the real consequence of this is the sexist and racist culture that lurks beneath IT and software companies which is materialising biases in the very fabric of AI technologies. An issue to be discussed in a later entry. For now, I wish only to quote Lady Ada’s pride on her own unacknowledged, forgotten, maybe even silenced accomplishments: “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show”. Commemorating her and the other brilliant forgotten women will allow society to tap into a large market of unempowered, yet capable women keen on bridging the gender gap and reshaping the discourse of technology for future generations.
[i] The Secret History of Women in Coding (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programming.html)
[ii] The Secret History of Women in Coding (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programming.html).
[iii] According to a PwC study (https://www.pwc.co.uk/women-in-technology/women-in-tech-report.pdf).
[iv] Interviewing Carnegie Mellon’s computer science students.
[v] “Revenge of the Nerds”, “Weird Science”, “Tron” and “WarGames” – to name a few.