12. Lessons from History

Thomas J. Misa

"Given women's clear presence in the practices, communities, and institutions of computing that are amply documented in this book, why did the public image of computing become so male? Three examples illustrate the workings of media bias and institutional blindness." 


Women working on ENIAC at the Moore School (full view) were cropped out for a 1946 U.S. Army recruiting advertisement (inset), in which only Corporal Irwin Goldstine remained (airbrushing took out the second man at back).

Firstly, is the journalist and media personality Robert X. Cringely, the pen name taken up by Mark Stephens who wrote the monthly computer-gossip column at Infoworld from 1987 to 1995. His work, Accidental Empires, looks at specifically the men of Silicon Valley, and the half-dozen women characters featured include such stereotypes as the "blonde suit in her twenties named Jennifer Seman," who makes comical mistakes. He followed this with "Nerd TV" in 2005, which also selectively focused on men, though did feature first a fashion model, then the actually accomplished entrepreneur Judith "Judy" Estrin, who was active in the microprocessor, networking, and software industries as well as Chief Technology Officer for Cisco Systems.

An example of institutional blindness can be seen in the U.S. Army's publicity for the ENIAC computer, where two of the women programmers were quite literally erased, taken out of the picture so that only one male operator in the photo when they published it. As with other industries, women who were welcomed into computing during the war were expected to return to their domestic roles when the men came back. It took decades for the work of all six ENIAC women to be properly recognized and wasn't until 1997 that they were inducted into the Women in Technology International's Hall of Fame. Another example comes from the depiction of women in Wired magazine, which has been a powerful force in defining the digital generation. The cover frequently depicted well-known, white men computer entrepreneurs, and simultaneously objectified women. In fifteen years of monthly issues, only two cover-story profiles have been about accomplished women, compared to five different cover stories about Bill Gates alone.



Grace Hopper (1906-1992) programmed Harvard's Mark I computer (1944-1949) and helped develop the UNIVAC (1949-1966), for which she wrote the world's first compiler in 1952. Her ideas of higher-level programming inspired COBOL. She directed the Navy Programming Languages Group (1967-1977), eventually retiring as Rear admiral.

This chapter puts together the lessons from previous chapters and shows that the dilemma of gender in computing today has much to do with computing's history. One positive result of this volume is that it presents an accurate history to counter the masculine mythology offered by Wired and Cringley. From icons like Grace Murray Hopper (chapters 3 and 6) to lesser known computer pioneer women who are still awaiting full recognition for their achievements (chapters 10 and 11), we hope to provide a more complete and accurate picture of computing, though for each of these justly celebrated women there were thousands more who worked in low-status, low-pay operator and data entry positions.

Since the 1890 census was tabulated on Hollerith machines, women have been working in information processing, as it transformed from a process of punching data onto cards to the business computers of the 1950s that were, in many cases, literally grafted onto the existing punch card operations. Business computing then has been strongly shaped by existing gender expectations, practices, and policies already in the workforce (chapters 3, 4, and 5). Both in Britain and the U.S. women worked closely with computers until the computer was assigned managerial responsibility and became professionalized, effectively barring women from working with them (chapters 3, 4, 6, and 7).

The computing workforce grew steadily throughout the 1960s and 70s, and was unusually open to women compared to other engineering professions at the time, though barriers to full acceptance of women, among them the narrow public image of computing, overt and subtle forms of sexism, and restricted conceptions of gender, remain in the field. The masculine and sexist work culture in computing, though not unique to the field, is identified as one of the main reasons that women leave the profession, in particular the pervasive image of the computer nerd that is portrayed in popular culture, computer advertising, and mass media most often as an antisocial, young, white man (chapters 8 and 9).

"A wider conception of gender itself would be helpful in investigating, for instance, how gay men and lesbian women experience the "macho" culture of computing and negotiate its assumptions about proper gender behaviors."


A key software pioneer, Frances Holberton (1917-2001) programmed the ENIAC (1942-1946) and created software for the UNIVAC at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company and Remington Rand (1947-1953). At the Applied Math Laboratory (1953-1966) of the U.S. Navy's David Taylor Model Basin, a large-scale test facility for ship design, she supervised advanced programming and helped create the computer language COBOL.

The long history of gender anxiety in computing is easy to see in its public image, with journalists as far back as the early days of personal computer-use focusing on the minority of young men who were expert users to paint a picture of women falling behind in this field, selectively ignoring women who were experts and the majority of men who were non-users or non-experts, and these cultural norms became embedded in the aptitude tests and hiring policies for computing professions, even in the absence of knowledge of what or who makes a good programmer (chapter 6). Similar processes can be seen in multiple different states, including Norway (chapter 8), where newspapers again focused on gender differences and created a self-fulfilling prophecy of women’s participation.

Stereotypes are powerful, especially when commonly accepted, because they rely on oversimplification of complex realities and often reinforce one another, making them easy to remember and easy to forget about the people who don't fit them. Yet despite the persistence of these stereotypes, they do change over time, and drawing on history of women's inclusion, achievement, and pleasure within the computing field can help to combat the image of computing today as exceedingly male-dominated.

12. Lessons from History