A Little Scattered Look at Women and Computers in U.S. History

Alamy stock photos always coming through with the quality.

After our first foray into pair programming yesterday, I started thinking about how computers used to be built for more than one user. Back in the mid-twentieth century, computers like the ENIAC and keypunch machines the size of rooms were too expensive and specialized to be owned by anyone besides private companies and government agencies.

Yesterday I tried to find a picture of multiple people working on one computer like the engineering team at Bell Labs in the 1970s, but instead I ended up going down a bit of a Google search rabbit hole. I ended up trying to find out how women were phased out of computer industry in the 1980s.

Two of the six women who operated the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, or ENIAC, in 1946. — source
After hunting down that ENIAC picture, I also started thinking about Mary Jackson (above), Dorothy Vaughan (below left), and Katherine Johnson (below right) — the NASA physicist pioneers who mapped the Apollo 11’s trajectory to the moon. — source

Much before all this though, in the 1920s, low-income women constituted the majority of programmers and “human computers” (a.k.a. people who literally computed numbers) — otherwise known as bookkeepers, clerical workers, and machine operators. Private companies and government organizations employed these computer workers, who used early tabulating and keypunch machines to manage data, i.e. calculations of the number of tons of freight moving in a certain direction on a railroad (Strom 71, 89).

The Curtis Publishing Company actively sought out poor, inexperienced women employees because they made the “steadiest workers” and the employer didn’t have to pay them too much (Strom 89).

According to this source and the Strom article, after American men were drafted to fight in World War II, the majority of women who replaced their jobs were still only paid a fraction (variable depending on race and age) of what white men were paid for the same job.

Works Progress Administration, Office of Recorder of Deeds, Washington, DC, 1936. Clerical workers revising old records. — source

After reading about 1930s clerical workers, I skipped around a bit, because it seemed like women were still fairly present in the mainstream computer industry through the 1970s in the United States, and I wanted to know when they left, and why.

According to a handful of articles, the change can be partly (if not entirely) attributed to a shift in the 1980s, when major computer companies began marketing personal computers specifically towards men and boys. It seems like this occurred primarily through entertainment advertising: movies, TV, and video games. According to a 1991 study of users and “computer-learning environments,”

“…boys appear to be more interested in electronic games than girls, though this may be attributed to a male bias in the design of games, many of which feature male-oriented themes of action and violence, and project stereotyped images of strong males and helpless females[Pro92]. The imbalance is self-perpetuating, since the attraction of young males to computers via these games helps provide the next generation of the software developers, thereby maintaining the male dominance of the industry.” Graves 25
1985 Apple commercial.

That thesis was written a decade after the marketing shift, but unloads even more questions, like what makes action and violence inherently “male-oriented”? Can you tell someone what to like? How can you form a demographic’s taste preferences? Why would boys like seeing stereotyped images of strong males and helpless females? What factors reinforce that preference?

It’s definitely an interesting read (or skim). I’m not really sure how this self-fulfilling prophecy of Guys Making Computers for More Guys came about — not sure how/when/why computer companies stopped hiring women or advertising to women, but I’ll definitely be on the look out for more reading material in the future.

1984 Apple commercial — is this not considered marketing for women? I’m kind of intrigued to be honest.

In the meantime, if anyone knows any good resources about computer history related to women and colonial/imperial history, or if you have any comments on the things I talk about here, please let me know!

.works-cited {

Anitha, S. and Pearson, R. Striking Women. Lincoln: University of Lincoln, 2013.

Bindi, Tasnuva. “Women Didn’t Just Recently Start Coding, They Actually STOPPED Coding Decades Ago.” Startup Daily. 24 Feb 2015.

Graves, David. “Supporting Learners in a Remote Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environment: The Importance of Task and Communication.” University of British Columbia. December 1997.

Strom, Sharon Hartman. “‘Machines Instead of Clerks’: Technology and the Feminization of Bookkeeping, 1910–1950.” Computer Chips and Paper Clips: Technology and Women’s Employment, Vol. 1. 1986.