Why women who code matter
- Clive Thompson’s book ‘Coders’ illustrates the history of computer programming and highlights the often forgotten role of women in the early days of the field
- It also asks what it would mean if women didn’t play an important role in the future that technology is forging
The date 15 July 1928 was an important one in the history of encryption and technology—it marked the first time the Enigma, possibly the most famous cipher machine in history, encoded a message. The Enigma is famous largely because of the role it played in World War II, when the machines, with their electro-mechanical rotor mechanism that scrambled the letters of the alphabet, were used by the Germans to encrypt war-time communication.
For the Allies, the Enigma was a complex puzzle. The chances of deciphering a message were pegged probabilistically at an incredible 150 million million million to one. With the benefit of hindsight, we know those odds were beaten. Working away furiously on the Buckinghamshire estate of Bletchley Park in the UK during the war were cryptanalysts, code breakers and engineers whose work could only be publicly acknowledged decades after the war was over. Alan Turing is, of course, the most famous of the Bletchley crew. More overlooked, though, is the role women played in this episode of history.
By the end of the war, Bletchley had a workforce of nearly 9,000, a whole three-quarters of it women. The most famous and successful of the Bletchley women was cryptanalyst Joan Clarke (who worked with Turing on cracking the Enigma cypher) but her stand-out success also obscures the wider role women played in the Bletchley operation. The majority of operators (some 2,500 by the end of the war) of the complicated machines that cracked the German ciphers were chosen from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens).
Around the same time, across the Atlantic, another secret project was pushing the boundaries of computing. In 1943, physicist John Mauchly and engineer J. Presper Eckert began working on the first fully electronic programmable digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (Eniac), at the University of Pennsylvania. The Eniac was designed to calculate ballistics for artillery but was also involved in calculations for the first hydrogen bombs. It was not a programmed computer, but more like a collection of electronic adding machines controlled by a web of electrical cables. It had to be programmed. In her book Recoding Gender, author Janet Abbate notes that before the invention of machines like Eniac, complicated mathematical calculations were often done by women by hand, or with some assistance from mechanical desk calculators. Abbate writes: “These women were called computers; this term did not yet refer to a machine."
To program the Eniac, the US army posted job descriptions for “computers" and chose six women: Jean Jennings, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Snyder, Frances Bilas and Kay McNulty.
At a time when there is greater scrutiny of the low representation and hostile treatment of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, including some arguments (such as those made by the former Googler James Damore) that women are biologically less suited for careers in tech, the role of women in the early history of computing is worth remembering. This history is just one of the subjects Clive Thompson tackles in his interesting new book,Coders: The Making Of A New Tribe And The Remaking Of The World.
Thompson makes the case that in our increasingly technology-driven world, we need to better understand the people who are writing the algorithms that are shaping our interactions with the people and the world around us. Crucially, it also makes the case for why it is important that the future technology is forging is one that is inclusive and diverse in input and viewpoints. The book provides a lively and accessible history of the profession and how the role of coders has evolved over time.
In doing so, Thompson highlights how, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the commercial demands for computer programmers opened career opportunities for women, arguing that at the time “nobody had experience in computer programming".
While the other sciences were often closed to women, computing was wide open, in no small part because it was hardware work that had all the glory. Women were often hired for programming roles because there were no fixed qualifications for the roles the firms were hiring for. By some arguments, the simple habits of fastidiousness that were associated with activities like knitting, weaving and even “cooking from a cookbook" worked to women’s advantage. “It’s just like planning a dinner," a 1967 Cosmopolitan article quoted Grace Hopper, who did pioneering work in the development of the COBOL programming language, as saying about programming opportunities for women. That there was a large pool of women with training in fields like math and philosophy who could be hired for much less money also helped women get a toehold in the field.
So, what changed? A few things. As the field began to professionalize and the career path of coders and programmers began to lead to management, a glass ceiling appeared. Advanced degrees and accreditation, which were harder for women to get, began re-gendering the field. To attract candidates with such profiles, the economics of the field too became more lucrative, and women were crowded out further.
The advent of personal computing changed the dynamics. In the environment of the home, computers propagated gender stereotypes. These were machines boys were more likely to be gifted and encouraged to play with. These social changes impacted the demographics of college classes, which increasingly marginalized women in ways we are still combating today.
As Thompson notes, this is a mostly American version of the story. A 2015 study by academics Roli Varma and Deepak Kapur, in the Communications Of The Association of Computer Machinery, shows that in India, women’s enrolment in computer science education has risen steadily since liberalization. Women constitute roughly 43% of enrolments in the computer science and engineering fields at the undergraduate level at accredited institutes and universities, according to the Union human resource development ministry’s 2017–18 All India Survey On Higher Education.
These numbers reflect a preference for science streams by the highest-performing students and a view of computer science as most well-suited for women in terms of postgraduation job opportunities. Yet these numbers don’t translate as well when it comes to the job market. Trade association Nasscom’s 2018 Women and IT Scorecard notes that women make up over 35% of the technical labour force within the Indian IT companies surveyed, but these positions are mostly concentrated at the entry level, with female participation at higher levels falling off a cliff. As of now, women’s representation in the workforce is fairly consistent across subsectors of the IT industry (BPO, knowledge process outsourcing, information technology enabled services, internet business and software, hardware and information technology).
Looking to the future, Thompson argues that as women stake a greater claim on computing jobs, there will be another wave of gendering of job roles, with the areas women are concentrated in declining in prestige. “Pink collar jobs" are what he calls them, arguing that front-end coding is increasingly viewed this way. India has, somewhat inadvertently, managed to buck the trend of women’s engagement in computer programming—to avoid the rise of a gendered caste structure within these jobs might require more concerted vigilance.
Vedica Kant is a recent MBA graduate from The Wharton School and a historian.