Why aren’t there more women programmers?

Women programmers

We know software development is a male dominated profession but it’s difficult to gauge how bad the imbalance is. Nearly 92% of the 82K developers who responded to a 2021 global survey reported being male but that could be due to a response bias. Separately, an on-going yearly survey shows about 21% of computer programmers are female; a percentage which hasn’t changed much since the first administered 20 years ago.

Regardless of the exact percentage, why aren’t there more women programmers?

It wasn’t always this way. Many of the pioneers of the computing industry were women. Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) is widely recognized as the world’s first computer programmer, creating instructions for the first general purpose computer machine (called the Analytical Engine). Grace Hopper (1906–1992) was a leading programmer and the inventor of the compiler, a program that translates English language instructions into the native language of a computer. While most of the acclaim goes to Alan Turing, nearly 300 women operated the Bletchley Park colossus machines which were built to decrypt German messages during WWII.

What’s more, for decades the number of women studying computer science grew faster than the number of men. By the 1970’s, women dominated the field of computing. However, in the early 80’s, the percentage of women in computer science dropped dramatically, even as the percentage of women in other technical fields kept rising. What happened?

According to the meticulously researched book Programmed Inequality, the switch to male domination in computer science was intentional – at least in Britain. As the discipline became more strategic and less clerical, government-led recruitment efforts focused on “career-minded, management-aspirant young men.” What’s more, the British Civil Service intentionally passed over already highly-trained female candidates because “high-level jobs were thought to be inappropriate for women.”

In the U.S., a similar result occurred, although for what appears to be less sinister reasons. Early personal computers weren’t much more than toys and, as NPR points out, “these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys… computers are for boys became a narrative.” It wasn’t long before boys became the exclusive focus of techie culture.

Hollywood cemented this viewpoint through movies like War Games, Revenge of the Nerds, and Weird Science. The screenplays all followed the same basic plot: socially awkward boy genius uses technology to triumph over adversity and win the girl. The geeks were all male.

The government. Hollywood. Those are huge influences on our belief system. No wonder there aren’t more women programmers.

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