I would like to start my first blog post by telling you about my role model in computer science. Margaret Hamilton was the director of the Software Engineering division in MIT, which developed software for the Apollo space program in 1960. She and her engineering team also wrote the code for the world’s first portable computer. The astronauts landed on the moon and returned safely back home thanks to them. This was a decade before Microsoft, back in a time when computer programming meant punching holes in punch cards. Hamilton states her work as “Wild West” because nobody was there to teach it.
Just imagine how hard she had to work.
As in today, computer science was a male dominated field in 1960 so it was no surprise for Margaret Hamilton to be an outcast as a working mother. She once said she was just one of the guys at the lab.
But even in 1960s, when women were way more passive in the society than today, there were plenty of women as pioneers in computer science. Today we only hear about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or other male pioneers. I have always wondered why this is the case.
In the past weeks I came across a podcast called “When Women Stopped Coding” and it enlightened me in so many ways. Please listen to it before continuing with reading:
http://www.npr.org/player/embed/356944145/357036571(I will still give a summary though. Ha ha.)
I think the graph shown below is very interesting and sad:
I am actually surprised by this result. Before seeing this graph, I thought the computer science curve was always increasing, but not as steep as the others. Also, I thought physics and other engineering fields should have had similar curves with the computer science one.
From the graph, we can see in 1984 so many women gave up on computer science. The drastic change in the graph is very unusual since there was no sudden quota or restriction on women.
Then why is this graph true?
The turning point of the graph corresponds to the time when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes. These computers were marketed almost entirely to men. If there was a woman in the ad, she would surely be in her bikinis.
For example, check out this Commodore SX-64 ad.
(I was wrong, there is another woman besides the one in bikini. She is, of course, preparing dinner for her husband!)
In movies, the main character was always an awkward geek boy who used technology to fight the enemies and win the girl. Families tended to buy computers for boys, even if the girls were sometimes more interested in computers.
This led to a secret prerequisite for taking programming courses. The guys seemed to know everything the professor had to say because they were already used to working with computers and they even did programming at home. Therefore, the professors assumed that the students knew about computers and refused to teach the basics to the ones lacking PCs (mostly women, as you could probably guess). Then the women started to drop out.
Today, the coding societies try to get more women by giving scholarships, free lessons or special programs. However, the number of women in computer science continues to decrease. I guess this is because society still has the impression that it is a tough job for women. In their opinion, women should take care of the household instead of coding sleeplessly for hours. Also in Turkey, if a woman says she wants to be an engineering student, people will immediately ask her what they will do in a classroom full of men, tell them it is a man’s job, they should try to be teachers or doctors, etc.
I am very lucky to have my mother as a computer engineer because even when people told me I should give up on computer science (you would not believe how many times this has happened to me, by the way) I have always had a living example of a woman who succeeded in her career.
I hope someday at least half of the CS classrooms will be women (…and the world will live as one).
WE CAN DO IT!