How We Talk About Women and Computers

“The Computer Girls,” a 1967 Cosmopolitan piece about a weird new field, programming, that was dominated by women.
— Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) July 8, 2015

The 1967 Cosmopolitan story on women programmers is making the rounds again, thanks to a tweet by reporter Clive Thompson. It last made its way around the Internet in 2011 thanks to this piece by Anna Lewis, at the blog of a software company called Fog Creek, where she pointed out that the article appeared between stories headlined “’The Bachelor Girls of Japan’ and ‘A Dog Speaks: Why a Girl Should Own a Pooch.’” Fog Creek noted that they had literally one woman on their technical staff — and she was an intern.

Fog Creek, in turn, got the magazine scan, it looks like, from the blog of the book The Computer Boys Take Over, by Nathan Ensmenger, a history of the politics of the industry. Here’s a whole set of early images of women and technology. It’s intense!

Back in 2011, the Cosmo story went under discussion at Hacker News, the mens’ rights messageboard that also addresses technology that sprung from startup incubator Y Combinator. And how did that conversation about the steep reduction in women in computer science from 1984 to 2006 go? Well, something like this:

You’re immediately jumping to the dogmatic conclusion that if there are less women in computer science right now, it must be because someone else is setting up obstacles to hold them back. But we don’t actually know this to be the case. It may instead be down to a lack of interest. It may be because the best and brightest programmers are all hackers who have been obsessed with computers since age 12; that’s the kind of person you need to be, it seems, to keep up in this field, and that’s a very male profile. Are we to cry “discrimination!” if it turns out that 12 year old girls are genetically predispositioned to prefer socializing with friends, over intrinsically loner activities like tinkering with computers?

That lone woman intern at Fog Creek, by the way? Her name is Leah Hanson, and today she works at Google, and has written an O’Reilly book about her preferred programming language.

Friday at lunch, I’m signing copies of the first chapter of my book, Learning Julia! #julialang @strangeloop_stl
— Leah Hanson (@astrieanna) September 18, 2014

So at least something good happened here!