Recovering the History of Women Computers

As an archivist, I’m not used to covering topical issues.  But the history of women computers in the field of science is suddenly getting a lot of attention.  The latest is the film “Hidden Figures,” which follows four African American women and their careers as mathematicians in Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s computer pool.  It’s based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and it’s slated to hit theaters late this year.

I’ve already mentioned the documentary called The Computers, which focuses on the women who became the first programmers of ENIAC.  More general is the PBS documentary Top Secret Rosies about the women who did ballistics research during WWII:

All this comes as new research shows that women were basically marketed out of the field of computer science during the early days of home computing.  Starting in the mid eighties, the percentage of women in the field of computer science began to drop out of proportion with their presence in other STEM fields.   The dominate theory right now is that home PC’s were specifically marketed to the public as a boy’s toy, creating the perception that all computers and coding were part of the masculine realm for some reason.  This created the stereotype of the male computer geek, and also edged young women out of the discipline.  The discussion is well covered by the Planet Money podcast:

HENN: Now, it’s hard to say if this is straight-up sexism or computer makers just had data that boys were a more receptive audience, but whatever the reason, this fed on itself. In the mid-’80s, you could turn on the TV and see women doctors on “St. Elsewhere.” Claire Huxtable was a lawyer on “The Cosby Show” – cops? – “Cagney & Lacey.” But pretty much anytime a computer was turned on, it was a male nerd running it. Think “WarGames,” “Revenge Of The Nerds,” “Weird Science.”

[…]HENN: By the mid-’90s computer science departments had been transformed. Carnegie Mellon, which had one of the best programs in the country, was 93 percent men. The number of women entering the field had slowed to a trickle …

The focus now is on changing this perception.  As I pointed out last time, the history of American astronomy is intertwined with the history of computer science and women mathematicians.  Astronomy may be the path forward once again.

Bookmark the permalink.