Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library)
The American computer industry seems dominated by people like me – males. But it was not always this way, in fact I stand on the shoulders of women.
While writing about SAGE in previous posts, I learned that at the beginning of the computer age, most programmers were women. My skills, including programming languages and tools, have a foundation built on the contributions of those who came before me. It turns out that I code like a girl, using concepts pioneered by women.
Computers: Human Women or Machine?
In the 1940’s and 50’s, there was a peak in women working as computers. Mathematically intensive industries like nuclear research, ballistics, and engineering often employed women to perform computations.
Do you remember “When Computers Were Women?” The article reminds us that a “computer” was actually a human being until around 1945. Afterward, a computer was a machine and humans were called operators.
In 1946, the first electronic general-purpose computer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was built. This began a process of reducing and automating manual calculations.
A select number of women operators and former “computers” were enlisted to become programmers for ENIAC. Notably, the first ENIAC programming team was comprised entirely of women: Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman.
School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library)
At the time, there was a strong division between the male domain of hardware and the female sphere of software. Male electronic engineers built the ENAIC system. But since software design and programming were considered clerical work, women instructed the the 27-ton hand-built mass of wires and vacuum tubes to perform calculations in sequence.
In true programmer fashion, the women learned by doing. The hardware engineers dropped the blueprints and wiring documents on them and said, “Here figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it.” So the women crawled around the massive frame and learned how each component worked. They successfully understood the interplay between hardware and software and how the computer’s behavior could be traced to a hardware or a software issue.
Unfortunately, all the credit for creating ENIAC went to the men who conceived it and built the hardware. The media covered the debut of ENIAC in February 1946, which showed off the centerpiece calculation of a trajectory. The program created by Betty Snyder and Betty Jennings impressed the VIPs because it allowed the computer to calculate faster than the projectile itself. But the women were not mentioned, seen in pictures of the event, nor invited to the press lunch with the men. In the end, the computer was the star of the show, depicted as an autonomous brain.
Words powerfully describe gender roles. What is now considered a male-dominated field, was once defined as “women’s work.” In the days of the first computers, the norms were as follows:
Society was keen on recognizing men’s contributions, while neglecting those of women. In the book, _Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing_, Janet Abbate found that publicity materials for ENIAC state that the machine reduced 25 man-months of human computer time to two hours on the ENIAC. However, it fails to mention that most of the human computers were really women. The materials also neglect to highlight the years of labor by both men (on the hardware) and women (writing software) to create the system. The only human labor noted in the press was the initial design of the machine, which was performed by men.
But even women of the time seemed to define their computer jobs as gender specific. Elise Shutt was a programmer on a later version of ENIAC called ORDVAC. When she was hired by Raytheon in 1953, she said, “It really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work.”
In another example, Grace Hopper compared programming to tasks like sewing clothes, making a recipe, and the work of a mother teaching a child. Thus, she defined programming as a female occupation. But this seems to have been lost on her supervisor, Howard Aiken who said in praise of Grace, “Grace was a good man.“
Recruiting materials were also used to attract women to programming with various metaphors and generalizations. In the 1940s, MIT had a shortage of men and highlighted skills such as needlework and knitting as characteristics useful for programmers. Others noted that female pursuits like crosswords and puzzles would make good programmers.
The first women who pioneered programming on the ENIAC finally gained the recognition they deserved in 1997 when they were inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1997 and IEEE in 1997 and 2008.
It seems that we continue to struggle with metaphors and defining skills used to train and attract the next generation to computer work. From recent statistics, we are finding a wider gender gap in the computer industry. The reasons for this are inconclusive and give us a reason for self-evaluation and consideration of language used to hire and promote, treatment of women, and how skills are evaluated.
It becomes increasingly important to value each member of a programming team regardless of gender, age, race, or creed to attract and keep the best minds to build our future software. There seems to be no end to the amount of programming work needed. Code on!
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