Did PCs influence decline in female participation in computing?

February 17, 2010 at 8:35 am 5 comments

Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, visited Georgia Tech yesterday as the Center for the Study of Women, Science and Technology’s 2010 Distinguished Lecturer. Her talk was full of some pretty depressing statistics about the declining participation of women in computing.  After the talk, she moderated a more-lively-than-usual discussion that started with a question “Why?  Why did women’s participation in computing start declining at the end of the 1980’s?”

Lucy was honest. “I don’t know.”  She said that she had heard lots of theories, but welcomed suggestions from the audience.  Lucy said that her personal opinion was that the dot-com boom didn’t help women.  The geeky, work 24/7, take-all-risks image of the male technology entrepreneur helped to make the perception of computing as more male.  She also pointed out that history has shown that when wages rise in a field, men fill it and women leave it.

Barb Ericson had a suggestion that I don’t recall hearing before which made a lot of sense to me.  When she was a software engineer at Bellcore, she programmed mainframes in large terminal rooms. Few people had terminals at their desks.  Those terminal rooms were social spaces where women made up 30% of the workforce.

Then the PC became mainstream. People had PC’s on their desk and could work alone, without going to a terminal room.   Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher talked in “Unlocking the Clubhouse” how the PC came into the home through the fathers and was seen mostly as a male device.  If there was one in the family, it would most often be in the son’s room.  Video games were created for the PC by guys for guys.  As the PC displaced the mainframe, the males displaced the females.

It’s an interesting theory, as were several others that were suggested yesterday.  Knowing the cause in decline in participation doesn’t necessarily mean that we immediately know a solution.  We can’t get rid of PC’s, we don’t want to lower wages, and we can’t make the dot-com era not happen (short of a time machine).  It’s still useful, though, to figure out what caused the decline to give us clues as to the way forward.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground in Silicon Valley Graduation Gaps for Science Majors: Whose fault is it?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  February 17, 2010 at 9:15 am

    When I was a student the university had A computer in THE computer room. It was very much a social space but the women, and there were more back then, didn’t stay there that much. They tended to come in, get their work done (faster than the male students) and then leave. They had a life outside the computer room. I suspect that some social aspects in the work place made it easier to retain women there (it’s a theory) but I’m not sure how much difference it made in college.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  February 17, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Hi Mark,

    I certainly think Barb is right about changes in status and wages driving out women in computing (for a number of reasons). This was also true in the transition from the 50s to the 70s. I witnessed this, because I started ca. 1961 in the old era (my first boss in the Air Force was a very capable woman civilian who had quite a bit of experience from the 50s).

    And I think there is something to be said about Barb’s other theory, but if what we saw in children in the transition from the 70s to the 80s is true, it had everything to do with parents, and not so much to do directly with PCs.

    We did many experiments with children of different ages in the 70s (when the only personal computers in the world were at PARC), and here we found the interest equal between boys and girls (and around age 12 or so, the girls were a little better at it, correlating with similar studies in language and reading etc.)

    In 1982-3 at Atari we set up a summer computing camp and found to our surprise that the demographics had completely flipped. 95% boys, 5% girls, and the boys especially wanted to learn BASIC not LOGO.

    This was so different from a few years before that we investigated and found that the *parents* of the children were the cause. The boys had been told “This is your life Buster, and you’d better learn BASIC”.

    Do these results scale to the larger phenomenon? I think they certainly contribute.

    Many studies have been done about societal and media influence on women’s roles during times of war and peace. During the war the women are encouraged to go into the factories (and this is portrayed as a desirable and feminine role model), as soon as the men come back and need jobs, everything changes, and suddenly it is *not* feminine to use a riveting gun.

    I think another factor that is worth considering wrt many different varieties of minorities and various kinds of discrimination is the great difference in how turf is contested by people of high ability vs. those in the big middle bracket. The top end of the scale is sometimes (even often) more of a meritocracy than the middle — and the contesting in the middle is often along dimensions that have nothing to do with merit.



  • 3. sylvia martinez  |  February 17, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    In the mid 80’s there was a recession that deeply affected the aerospace industry and many engineers and programmers were laid off. Things like that dampen the enthusiasm of students deciding on careers, particularly women. It became more attractive to pick other sciences, if it wasn’t something that you were dead set on.

    Personally, I took a leave to have kids around this time, after 8 years as a working engineer/programmer. So did more than a few of my female programmer friends. If you got a degree in the 70s, you had kids in the 80s. My workplace went from about 40% female to 20% in the mid-80s. And lots of us found other ways than 90 hour workweeks to make a living that left time for families.

    As the the social aspect of mainframes, I too remember that well. Where I worked it was a very rapid changeover and I felt we lost a lot of the community value of being able to talk about the work as a group and learning from more experienced programmers. Didn’t Weinberg write about this in The Psychology of Computer Programming?

  • 4. Rita Freudenberg  |  February 18, 2010 at 5:30 am

    What I remember from my early days, in the late 80s in Eastern Germany, is that there were many woman doing work like punching cards, documenting, or operating the mainframes (my job). And once we started, e.g., the wage accounting, which took several hours with not much to do in between, we sat down knitting. I never get that much pullovers done in my life than during that time!
    The programmers were a different kind of people, there also were women, but they were not the majority.

  • 5. Bonnie MacKellar  |  February 18, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I majored in computer science in the era before PCs or GUIs. About 30 to 40% of the undergrads in my major were women. The GUI revolution hit while I was in grad school, and that is about the time that I saw numbers starting to decline. I think PCs had some role because computing became less social, but I think GUIs were an even bigger culprit. Women tend to be verbal and word-oriented, whereas GUIs depend heavilly on visual and spatial reasoning. Just think about the differences – in a text-based interface, for example, an error is signalled by an explicit message. In a GUI, however, errors are often signalled by subtle visual cues -changes in color or shape, for example. I think women found these interfaces to be a little foreign. Think of another example – where do men and women cluster on the Internet? Women tend to dominate the more verbal applications – mailing lists, Facebook, and even blogs. Men seem to prefer online games. I think that what has driven women out has been a combination of factors – losing the social aspect of computing, and moving away from a verbal/text-based approach to a more visual approach.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10,184 other subscribers


Recent Posts

Blog Stats

  • 2,049,220 hits
February 2010

CS Teaching Tips

%d bloggers like this: