'HER'story of the Tech Industry: When Women Were Computers

January 13, 2017


When you think of the tech industry and all of the computer programmers employed there, it is likely that you think of a bunch of young men in their 20’s wearing jeans and hoodies, who love to play as hard as they work. While this may seem like a new image that is largely associated with Silicon Valley and the success stories of billionaire entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, the stereotype of computers as a masculine domain isn’t new. In fact, this stereotype is the result of centuries of socially constructed gendered roles. Unfortunately, these stereotypes have real world effects, and the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry is one of them. In Canada, women account for only 30% of those in computer science and mathematics programs; furthermore, for professional women in the tech industry, 52% leave due to the masculine work culture. While these stats may sound very discouraging, it is important to recognize that the tech industry wasn't always this way. In fact, the computer programming used to be a field dominated by women. Most of the first computer programmers were women, including Ada Lovelace, who invented the science of computer programming between 1842 and 1843. Unfortunately, the media and history have largely erased women's role in the history of computing[1]. In an effort to show why women can and should succeed in computer science, we are taking a look at the historical role women have played and how their representation, or lack thereof, continues to have an effect on women today.

"Computer" was originally a job title. People who were "Computers" would perform the repetitive calculations required to compute things, such as navigational tables, tidal charts, and ballistics calculations. Much like other jobs, this role was originally filled by men due to the gendered division of the work and home. However, the computing field saw a massive influx of women during the Second World War. Much like other male dominated professions at the time (particularly the STEM industries that were required for the war effort), women were used to fill the void left by men who went overseas to fight. Many of these women who entered the field of computing frequently had degrees in mathematics; however, since the job of "Computer" was now predominantly being done by women, computing as a field undertook a gender division. The feminization of the role meant that women did not take over all of the duties that had once been performed by men. Women’s roles, which still involved advanced mathematical equations, entailed a loss of prestige and were characterized as tedious. Comparatively, men working in computing occupied prestigious leadership positions and were largely given the credit for the work[1]

Programmers Ruth Lichterman (left) and Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer (right) wiring the ENIAC with a new program.

The first all-electronic computer was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). It was developed in the 1940s to mechanize and speed up the calculations that were being performed by the women "Computers." While the ENIAC could calculate answers faster than human "Computers," it still required people to act as "Operators." This role was, once again, mainly performed by women. "Operators" would manually input questions into the electronic computer through the manipulation of switches and wires. Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman were the first programmers of the ENIAC, and some of the very first computer programmers in the world. Although the role of “Operator” is more in line with what we consider programming today, it continued to be portrayed as trivial simply because the work was being performed by women. This devaluation of women's work resulted in a new division of jobs in the computing industry based on gender. Hardware, or the production and development of the machines themselves, was considered men’s work, whereas, software, or what was perceived as clerical programming, was considered women's work.[1] While this makes it seem like there was a clear distinction between duties, with men performing the skilled work and women the unskilled work, the line was not always cut and dry. Women often needed high-level of familiarity with the hardware to perform their jobs, and once again, often had degrees in mathematics[1]. Therefore, there was a clear contradiction between the job descriptions and value of the work as compared to the actual work and capabilities of the women programmers during the mid-20th century.

Most reprinted image of the ENIAC featuring Cpl. Irwin Goldstein. The women on the right were often cropped out or left nameless.

Media articles rarely mentioned any of the women involved in the ENIAC project. When media outlets described the technical prowess of the ENIAC, they claimed that it only took 15 seconds to perform a calculation, completely ignoring the time and effort women spent setting up the problem. Other descriptions of the ENIAC include, “[the machine is] doing easily what had been done laboriously by many trained men”[1], creating a façade that men had been doing the labour and calculations rather than the women who actually did them. When one of the most popular images of the ENIAC was printed in an army recruitment advertisement in Popular Science Magazine, the women in the photo were cut out of the frame, and instead, the image focused on a man operating the machine[1]. All of these are examples of how the media systematically removed women’s relationship with technology, reinforcing the idea that men are the technologically proficient gender. 

Katherine Johnson at NASA in 1966

If this story sounds familiar it’s because the recently released film, Hidden Figures, highlights the same struggles women Computers and Operators continued to face nearly two decades later. Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson and other women of colour who were integral to the launch of the first American in space, but received little credit or recognition. From 1953 to 1958, Johnson worked as a computer, reading the data from the black boxes of planes and carrying out precise mathematical tasks. Johnson and other women of colour were considered “Coloured Computers” and were subject to workplace segregation, including working, eating and using the washroom separated from their white peers. While Johnson did receive accreditation from NASA and was able to rise in ranks, becoming a respected aerospace technologist, her story represents the gender and racial barriers that women in computing faced. Johnson was fundamental to the successful space flights of Alan Shepard’s Mercury Missions and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon, yet she is largely missing from the historical telling of America’s early space program.

Following the introduction of digital computers and high-profile activities such as space flight, the prestige and perceived technical proficiency of computer programming began to rise. With this came an active  effort to expel women from the roles they had filled, and to re-masculinize the computer industry. One of the methods of re-masculinizing computing was through the professionalization of programming.  Through this professionalization, clear standards of programming competencies were enacted in order to raise the public reputation of computer personnel and to create a barrier of entry into the field[2]. The professionalization of programming can be seen as a reaction to the women programmers of the ENIAC era. Women operators in the 1940s were forced to learn the mechanics of computers on the job, a skill that was not in their job description, and most importantly, their work was characterized as subprofessional [1].  There was a growing concern among male computer programmers that their job would become obsolete and there would be no room for professional upward mobility[2], much like how women operators had been disposable and undervalued only a couple decades earlier.

The number of women in Computer Science programs was steadily rising until 1984.

Many believed that through the creation of professional standards, programming would be less likely to be feminized once again. The tactic seemed to work for a short period, and during the 1960’s few women were receiving degrees in computer science. However, this can largely be attributed to the fact that men nearly doubled the number of women in higher education, due to persistent gender norms surrounding the role of women in the home. Women’s participation in computer science could not be stifled for long though. Starting in the 1970’s, women’s attendance at colleges and universities dramatically rose and started to outpace men. The number of women in computer science programs rose, reaching a high of almost 40%; however, in 1984, this all changed. The number of women majoring in computer science began to plummet to a low of less than 20% in the early 2000’s. To find out why the number of women decreased, check out NPR's article "When Women Stopped Coding." Today, the percentage of women studying computer science, and the number of women working in the tech industry as a whole, continues to have a hard time recovering from this drop. 

Help to rewrite the history of tech and the world by sharing the stories of these and other exemplary women! Learn about just a few of Canada's groundbreaking women through our blog post "Because of Her: Women's History Month 2016", check out Feminist Frequency's Ordinary Women web episode "The Brilliant Life of Ada Lovelace" to learn more about the programmer and inventor who was ahead of her time, and go see Hidden Figures, which tells the story of the brilliant women of colour in STEM that were behind the launch of the first American in space.
If you'd like to learn more about women working in a variety of STEM fields, check out the WiSE Atlantic collection of video interviews here.


[1] Light, Jennifer S. 1999. "When Computers Were Women." Technology and Culture  40, no. 3: 455-83. Accessed October 16, 2016.

[2] Ensmenger, Nathan. 2010. “The Professionalization of Programming.” In The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, 163-94. Cambridge: The MIT Press. Accessed October 16, 2016.