When women were considered better programmers than men

August 31, 2015 at 7:57 am 14 comments

Nathan Ensmenger has not only written a fascinating book about how computing became so male (see book link here), he also maintains a blog that updates the story.  The quote and picture below is from a recent post about a recently discovered source that describes women in computing from the 1960’s, back when women were considered better programmers than men.  The rhetoric about women being more “sensitive” reminds me of Karen Ashcraft’s plenary talk at NCWIT which I highly recommend (see link here). The story about the Miss USA winner who became a computer programmer is particularly striking.

The Bodony story is not an isolated  incident.  The book is full of stories from women, and in fact includes an entire chapter devoted to women in computing (“The Equal Sex”).   Seligsohn goes so far as to suggest that female programmers are not only equal in ability to men, but superior:

Given a complex customer problem, a female analyst/programmer will often handle the problem better than would her male colleagues with equivalent experience and ability.  Not because businessmen are more lenient or show favoritism toward the female of the species, but because the female is often more sensitive to the nuances of a problem and to the complex interpersonal relations that may be part of the problem.   In a very real sense, every computer problem with a customer is also a customer relations problem, and this is where feminine tact, insight, and intuition, combining with solid programming and analytical ability, can really pay off for the girl programmer.

via The Computer Boys Take Over | Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  August 31, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Interesting – “the girl programmer” – not wording many would use today.

    • 2. Robert Talada  |  December 9, 2019 at 5:50 pm

      Really? I mean, it’s very common. girlswhocode.com? I really don’t think it’s as outlandish as you make it out to be.

  • 3. Jim Williams  |  August 31, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Just came across this NPR story “When Women Stopped Coding” http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding

  • 5. Raul Miller  |  August 31, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Given the success of early projects like NASA’s Apollo program, this observation about gender-biased competence is quite plausible.

    On the other hand, given how much more powerful today’s machines are (and our general tolerance for glitchy behavior), maybe that doesn’t matter so much nowadays?

  • 6. slger  |  August 31, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    If only someone had told me then…

  • 7. George Dunkas  |  August 31, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Just about every young girl that I’ve asked what their favorite subject in school is replies….science or math. Too many times I see girls persuaded into other subjects, which is a detriment to everyone. We can all contribute, just have to find our niche.

  • 8. Dorian Love  |  September 3, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Reblogged this on The DigiTeacher.

  • 9. fgmart  |  September 6, 2015 at 6:19 am

    Women certainly are socialized to be more relational more than men. Given that the analyst job entails problem discovery, which is a cooperation and negotiation, I can see a basis for women (on average, per societal expectations) being better at this.

    This is a fascinating bit of history. It’s weird that perceived realities can turn upside down over not too many years.

  • 10. fgmart  |  September 8, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Here’s a brand new story on how people skills are a critical complement to STEM skills… https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-best-jobs-now-require-you-to-be-a-people-person/

  • […] I learned about this work at VL/HCC a couple months ago. It’s an interesting connection to the earlier post on women being better than men as programmers (see link here). […]

  • 12. Dave  |  October 22, 2017 at 5:30 am

    Never heard that one before. Computers, programming and making games have always been a boy thing. It has been backed up by experiments many times. From birth Boys reach for technical things to take a part and try to fix. Girls focus on communication and relationships and playing mum with dolls. Yes boys and girls are not the same. Sorry but this is just nature.If you ask the adverse girl What programming languages are used today the would not have a clue and ask them what is inside a computer then they would also not have a clue. Every boy I know used to try to program and play games and even take computers apart. I have a few sisters and they never did this or did the friends. Girls are playing more games these days but but just ones like candy crush. I asked my what what computer she had when she was a child and she just said never had one.

    • 13. rademi  |  October 22, 2017 at 9:27 am

      Cite the experiments please? (I know of plenty of counter examples, so I am curious – at the very least – about sample size and methodology.)

  • 14. Dave  |  October 22, 2017 at 5:49 am

    Sorry for the spelling errors my Kids were jumping on me. By the way I have nothing against women.I love women. My wife still thinks man and boys messing around with computers are nurds.


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