Linked by Thom Holwerda on Mon 28th May 2012 19:25 UTC
In the News This topic comes up quite a lot on technology websites, but I generally try to steer clear from it as much as possible, since I'm not the one to talk about it (you know, with me being a man and all that), however, I feel it might be a good idea to just get my opinion out there and be done with it. The topic of women in IT is a hot-button issue, so let me just go out guns blazing: assuming women need special treatment, help, protection, and affirmative action is just as insulting and degrading as outright claiming women have no place in IT - maybe even more so.
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My mother's first programming job was in 1952, on a computer some may be familiar with, called Whirlwind. She started with a degree in applied mathematics as a "computer", basically one of a room full of women with adding machines, calculating ballistic tables. Being a programmer back then was considered a lowly clerical job, the coding interface between the male researchers who devised the equations and the male technicians who wired up the circuit boards that encoded the programs (program memory was just being developed). All of the programmers on that project then were women, it was such a low status job that they had no issue hiring African-Americans to do it (like my mother). And, unlike the researchers and technicians, programming was not considered a true staff position at the MIT laboratory she then worked for.

For a bit more perspective of that era, she met my father there, who had just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from MIT through the GI bill. His admission to MIT was through a quota system, though not the type Thom is thinking of. In fact MIT (and most other major colleges/universities then) limited the number of non-white males admitted, which basically included women (MIT was nominally "co-ed" then), Jews and other "ethnics", Asians, etc.

Fast forward to 1972 when I started programming. Outside of places like IBM, programming was still a relatively low status job. Some of the programming jobs were basically at minimum wage. Only a small number of computer science programs existed at the time. I ended up at a small office of a then major software house, writing assembly language code for PDP-8s, Novas, and the like. A few of the other programmers had degrees in electrical engineering or mathematics, some either had no degree (like myself), or degrees in english or even music. Programming was something that could be picked up on the job, through the military, in high school (like myself), etc. The majority of the programmers in my office (and nearly half of the hundreds of others working for that company) were women.

By 1980 most universities had computer science programs, status was rising, and programming was becoming a hot high paying job. Companies started competing for the top computer science graduates from MIT, Cal, CMU, Stanford, etc., and for whatever reason, the number of women interviewed and hired started dwindling.

During the early 90s, I was working for a newly public and still well known software company in northern California. I ended up there through the back door, as I started out as a consultant sent in by a workstation company to develop specialized graphics drivers. I would never have been hired if I simply submitted a resume. Out of 100 or so programmers when I was first hired, there was one woman and a handful of minorities. Once they started selling software to the US government they had to have an affirmative action program (covering race and gender) on the books, this was thought by upper management to be a big joke, and was written that way until I complained, and the lawyers advised them this would not go over well.

One last anecdote, towards the end of my stay at this company, I was managing one of the development groups, and happend to wander through the phone support area. I noticed one black kid in there who I'd never seen before (given that out of the then thousands of employees, the number of blacks could still be counted on one hand, this may be understandable). Turns out, he had graduated from the top of his class at Cal with dual degrees in computer science and mathematics. He had had an on-campus with another of the managers (who came back with a stack of resumes mostly from brothers in his former fraternity), submitted resumes for programming positions, etc., and no one noticed. So he managed to get a job in support. I was able to able to arrange for him to be transferred to programming position in another development group, where he ended up doing quite well. That, only because I saw someone who looked like me from 20 years before. From my perspective, none of the managers were particularly biased against anyone, they were simply clueless as to whom they were hiring and why.

This is all a (hopefully) nice roundabout way of informing Thom that I don't think he understands the context in which these discussions are taking place. The IT industry is gradually getting better in terms gender and racial diversity, but there is still a culture that tends to exclude those who are unwilling or unable to conform to their notions of what a programmer should look and act like. No one is suggesting that males should be replaced by less qualified females, just that it is time to switch back from what we now half-seriously refer to as the "brogrammer" culture, to something somewhat more comfortable for all of us...

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