10. The Pleasure Paradox

Bridging the Gap Between Popular Images and Women's Historical Experiences

Janet Abbate

Most studies on the underrepresentation of women in computing focuses on the negative aspects of the experience such as discrimination, hostile classroom and workplace environments, and the ways young women are discouraged from pursuing math and sciences, leaving the enjoyable aspects of women's computing experience largely ignored. This chapter draws on interviews with women who began their computing careers between the 1940s and 1980s in the US and Great Britain, highlighting aspects of the field they found particularly welcoming or pleasurable (make no mistake, these women all recalled hardships and discrimination as well, this chapter simply seeks to break from the focus on the already well-documented negative aspects).


Heather Gilbert, a Stanford mathematics major who also gained a Master's in computer science, started at Burroughs as a system analyst in 1969. After several assignments at company headquarters in Detroit, she transferred to Pasadena, Calif., where in 1978 she oversaw management systems.

Underrepresentation of women is often mentioned in relation to the popular image of computing work, depicted as isolated and hypercompetitive environments and disconnected from real-world problems, yet this is a distorted impression, and emphasizes traits that are unnecessary and even detrimental to a productive workplace, and the idea that this work is unsatisfying for women is not reflected in historical and present day accounts of women within the field. This historical analysis firstly helps us to uncover the reality of women's past enjoyment of computing and secondly to reveal that the image of computing as hostile towards women is a relatively recent phenomenon rather than an intrinsic quality of the field.

It also provides a look into the ways that gender is socially constructed to fit a particular historical context, and the ways that it can change as needed to fit new contexts. The interviews that this chapter draws on are from women in a variety of computing professions, though mainly those that are now considered highly masculinized such as programming and computer science and not fields such as data-entry where women have always been overrepresented, and does not include the views of women who were discouraged or excluded from the field, and does not include any nonwhite women (there were nonwhite women working in the computing field but not in large numbers), and for these reasons does not claim to represent a universal feminine experience, nor a universal computing experience. The range of rewards from computing that the interviewees spoke ranged from pleasure in workplace camaraderie to pride in meeting the daily challenges of programming research.

"While one might expect many of these feelings to be shared by men, the women's accounts are notable for what they leave out: there is little emphasis on achievements generally associated with male ambition, such as amassing wealth, attaining high rank or status, outshining their peers in technical prowess, or achieving public recognition."

Some other general trends that emerged from the interviews were firstly that many women perceived computing as cutting-edge and glamorous, were fascinated by the technology itself, and saw it in sharp contrast to the limited options available for women in the 1940s through 1960s. Secondly, of the women interviewed who had gotten to try programming (usually in a college class) before they had a computer job found that they enjoyed the process of programming itself. Thirdly, while the association of computing with mathematics is now often seen as an obstacle for women to enter the field, many of those interviewed were drawn to computing because they were mathematicians and perceived computing to be related. Finally, almost all of the women interviewed mentioned a desire for financial independence, and in surveying the options available to them at the time, and saw computing as both an opportunity to find pleasure in their work and to construct an identity as an independent, valued professional.


Burroughs recruiting in 1980 pictured Toni Sternal, a project manager based in Pasadena, California. After 10 years in field engineering, Sternal directed a team of hardware support specialists in the "center of activity for medium computer systems."

The pay that these women received may have been lower than that of their male counterparts, but it was typically higher than they would have expected to earn in another field. They found pleasure from a sense of accomplishment, which they defined in many different ways, but often placed value on solving real-world problems such as turning abstract theories into usable software, providing tools for firefighters and air traffic controllers, building atomic bombs for national defense, and helping business users satisfy their customers.

While the prevailing stereotype of computing as an anti-social "nerd" realm, many women found the work to be social and spoke of the pleasure of working with compatible, "fun" people, and valued working with colleagues whom they admired for their intellect and leadership skills, as well as appreciating being respected for their own skills. The gender neutrality that women perceived in the computing field evaporated at the management level, with most women trapped in purely technical positions and very few able to rise to real power. The issue seems to be not with computing per se, but with a male-biased management structure that permeates nearly every industry. Those who did rise to executive positions, like their male counterparts, enjoyed the financial rewards and ability to implement their own ideas which came with the role, but unlike most men, did not describe their achievements solely in individual terms. Rather they often emphasized the joy of building a team and helping each member succeed to the best of their ability, defining leadership as a mutually supportive exercise.

The women interviewed also found pleasure in all different levels of computing, some preferring to work closely with the machine, others finding excitement in the theoretical aspects of computer science, and still others preferring the social interaction of project management. The literature on the barriers women face in entering computing goes a long way towards explaining why women are underrepresented in the field, but from the women interviewed here, it would seem that one overlooked factor appears to be the public image of the masculine "computer geek" that women encounter long before they enter the job market.


Burroughs recruitment in 1978 profiled Libby Ryan, a B.S. mathematics major working at the Burroughs engineering center in Tredyffrin, Pennsylvania, who directed software development for large general-purpose computers.

To conclude, this chapter offers four potential policy approaches towards resolving the lack of women in computing.

"1. Reframe the Popular Image of Computing." Drawing on the historical record, the biggest factors that draw women to computing are the ability to work on real-world issues, intellectual challenge, and respect from peers and colleagues. These factors need to be emphasized and compared with other occupational fields that women are drawn to, as we can see that women have long evaluated computer work in the context of other career options.

"2. Discard Narrow Gender Stereotypes and Accommodate Diversity." The accounts of women in computing reveal that the profession is capable of accommodating a diverse range of personality types across gender lines, and employers, teachers, and school guidance counselors should recognize and publicize these diverse personalities that enjoy computing.

"3. Reconsider Reward Systems." The rewards and satisfactions highlighted by women shows that the field is rewarding for them but are not necessarily likely to garner recognition. Activities such as mentoring, communication, and team solidarity often go unacknowledged and unencouraged. Employers and managers should recognize and reward communication skills that their workers, regardless of gender, bring to the job, and resist the urge to tie perceptions of good work to masculine stereotypes, such as equating aggression with leadership.

"4. Restore the Fun to Computing." The tendency to push women into the mundane aspects of computing like data entry and word processing has made it so that computing has lost the excitement and edge it once had. To bring more women in, programming exercises should connect to real-world problems, and students should have a chance to interact with end-users.

10. The Pleasure Paradox