When Women Stop Coding

These days we hear a lot about the gender gap and sexism in tech careers, but it wasn’t always that way. Women were some of the leading pioneers in coding and computer science. The first person to write a computer algorithm was Ada Lovelace in the 1800s. Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper invented the computer language COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) and coined the popular term “debug.” In the 1960s and 70s the percentage of women entering computer science in college was growing right along with majors like medicine, law, and physics.

But in 1984, as women’s participation rates in other technical fields continued to increase, computer science dropped off. So how did this happen?

Anecdotes shared in NPR’s “When Women Stopped Coding” podcast painted a picture of women in the 1980s as confident and ready to study computer science in college for the first time. The men they were studying beside, however, had certain advantages. They had brought home some of the first personal computers as kids. They had grown up tinkering with their hard drives and playing video games with other boys.

A woman sits at a computer

Olga Bayborodova, a computer operator, shown at work in 1986. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the girls interviewed didn’t have the same opportunities because their parents saw technology as an unreasonable expense for girls, even when many of their male peers had computers. One woman reported that the only computer in her house was literally locked in her brother’s room. Computers were “boys’ toys” and the geek narrative was thriving (read: Revenge of the Nerds). So even though you didn’t need to know your processing speed to be an apt programmer, exclusion from the growing boys’ club made the tech world feel out of reach, and many women dropped out.

Solving the Equation
New Research on
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“If you’re in a culture that is so infused with this belief that men are just better at this and they fit in better, a lot can shake your confidence,” said researcher Jane Margolis, who interviewed hundreds of computer science majors in the 1990s. Her report found that more than half the women who dropped out of a top computer science program at Carnegie Melon had been on the dean’s list. Today women’s participation in computer science majors has dropped to the same level as in the 1970s.

Confidence and courage can be key to overcoming some barriers, but we know women have to overcome more than a couple snide comments to thrive in computer science. For years, girls are told that they don’t need to bother their pretty little heads with technology. If they do complete their degree in computer science, they still face a hostile work environment prone to sexual harassment and double standards. Underlying biases about women in leadership and technology lead to stalled promotions. All of this adds up toabout half of recently surveyed women professionals leaving their tech-intensive careers for other fields. Women want to feel safe, secure, and respected in their work, and they’re willing to go elsewhere to find it — even if that means a decrease in pay or prestige.

So how do we reverse this trend? We’ll explore that question in our research coming out on March 26. In the meantime, let’s continue to support the women and girls who are working toward or already succeeding in technology careers so that we don’t lose them, too.