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How Computer Programming Became a Profession for Bearded Men in Sandals

History professor discusses gender issues in the history of the computing professions.

An overflow audience filled Encina Hall Monday for Nathan Ensmenger’s talk on “Making Programming Masculine.” The University of Pennsylvania professor and author described the early days of computing in the mid-20th century when cadres of women like the “Eniac Girls” were in high demand as programmers. But by the 1970s, they were replaced by men who often were stereotypically unsociable.

Ensmenger referred back to the era of Charles Babbage, whose “difference engine” contributed to the industrial revolution and the large-scale employment of female factory workers. Many women could be found in offices operating mechanical calculating machines through the first half of the 20th century. They were a model for the Eniac computer in 1946, whose designers believed programming should be low-cost clerical work for women.

The “Eniac Girls” were six women who did the programming but were all but forgotten and systematically eliminated from advertising and celebrations for the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer. Although most were college graduates, the "girls" were told that only "men" could get professional ratings.

As the computer industry flourished in the 1960s, there was a “software crisis,” with programmers in short supply. Computer companies could not afford to discriminate on a basis of gender.

Cosmopolitan magazine in 1967 published an article called “The Computer Girls” that encouraged women to consider becoming programming trainees to earn $8,000 per year. They could possibly move up to senior systems analysts and earn $20,000. Admiral Grace Hopper, a legendary pioneer in computer science, suggested to women that “computer programming is like planning a dinner.”

The computer industry was not about to accept an exclusively female programming force, though. IBM in 1956 ran a full-page employment advertisement in The New York Times with “Are YOU the man to command electronic giants?” as its headline. Other companies published blatantly anti-female ads for automation equipment targeted at elimination of female computer workers.

Ensmenger showed how Systems Development Corp. (SDC), a defense contractor, created aptitude tests for recruiting and qualifying programmers. Other firms like Honeywell and IBM continued to use these tests through the 1980s, even though they were seen to be ineffective. Mathematical questions could be construed to be biased against women, and their correlation with programming ability was questionable at best.

Theodore C. Willoughby’s paper, “Are Programmers Paranoid,” at an Association for Computer Machinery conference in 1972, described programmers as not paranoid, just unfriendly. Other studies at that time found a high incidence of beards and sandals among the programmers.

Computers as valuable resources were operating around the clock, and programmers had to work unusual hours. This tended to attract more men to the profession. By the late 1960s a hacker culture developed that also was male-dominated.

Stanford computer science professor Eric Roberts pointed out that Ensmenger’s history is largely an American and European story. He said that in Islamic countries, most computer programmers are women.

In response to a question, Ensmenger agreed that age may be more of a divide than gender in computer programming and that sociability affects managerial success. He thinks it’s unlikely for a corporate computer professional to become a CEO.

Ensmenger is an assistant professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. His book, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, was published last year.

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the Computer History Museum in Mountain View will screen Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II.

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