When Programming Was ‘Women’s Work’

When Programming Was ‘Women’s Work’

Facing a talent crunch in critical IT and cybersecurity roles, many organizations are looking to entice women back into a heavily male-dominated tech workforce. The tech sector is known for being a less than hospitable work environment for women, and one reason the sector has been leading on family-friendly benefits like parental leave is that is has to in order to convince women to work there.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that in its early years, computer programming was a predominantly female occupation. At the Atlantic, Rhaina Cohen explains why that was so, and how it changed:

In the early years of computing, the area that garnered respect was hardware development, which was thought of as manly work. Meanwhile, the work most women performed, programming, lacked prestige. The gender makeup of programmers and the status of the job were mutually reinforcing. Women were hired because programming was considered clerical work, a bit of plug-and-chug labor that merely required women to set into motion preset plans.

Programming was later recognized to involve complex processes of analysis, planning, testing, and debugging. Initially, though, the job was poorly understood. Janet Abbate, a professor of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech, explains in her book Recoding Gender that, in the absence of a concrete grasp on the job, “gender stereotypes partially filled this vacuum, leading many people to downplay the skill level of women’s work and its importance to the computing enterprise.” Notably, where more egalitarian gender roles prevailed, so did the job options available to women in computing. While American and British women were effectively barred from building hardware during the mid-20th century, women in the relatively more equitable Soviet Union helped construct the first digital computer in 1951.

By the time Cosmopolitan was interviewing Grace Hopper [in 1967], the field was already taking a masculine turn. Aptitude tests and personality profiles, which were the primary mechanisms used to screen and rank job candidates in programming in the 1950s and 60s, helped accelerate the profession’s shift from female to male. These measures, which hiring managers considered to be objective, often told employers less about an applicant’s suitability for the job than his or her possession of frequently stereotyped characteristics. … Over time, the gender balance tipped further in men’s favor. In the 1950s, women comprised between 30 and 50 percent of programmers. As of 2013, women made up about one-quarter. Accompanying men’s takeover of the field in the late 1960s was an immense climb in pay and prestige.

As Cohen points out, there’s an important lesson to be learned from this history about how we value the work women do and how that valuation contributes to the gender pay gap. People who deny or downplay the gender gap often argue that it’s almost entirely explained by the fact that women typically work in fields that tend to pay less. But as we’ve seen before, when women begin to dominate a profession, pay in that profession tends to decrease. In other words, just as Cohen describes in the early history of computer programming, when a job is perceived as “for women,” it’s seen as less serious, less difficult, and less deserving of high compensation.