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From (mostly female) human computers to (mostly male) computer programmers.

By Straight Talk Editors

We work from morn till night

                For computing is our duty;

We’re faithful and polite,

                And our record book’s a beauty;

With Crelle and Gauss, Chauvenet and Pierce,

                We labor hard all day;

We add, subtract, multiply, and divide,

                And we never have time to play

So sang a chorus of “computers” in the Observatory Pinafore, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore, written in 1880 by a junior astronomer at the Harvard Observatory. In the nineteenth century, astronomy was the dominant field of scientific research and the discipline that required the greatest amount of calculation. Doing the calculations were human “computers,” all of them female.

By the early twentieth century, computing was thought of as women’s work and computers were assumed to be female. The proliferation of mass-produced adding and calculating machines brought the female operators of these machines in large numbers to military and business settings and to new research fields such as economics and social statistics.

The work of female computers crested during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. They attempted to establish their work as an independent discipline with its own professional literature, formal training, and supportive institutions. But as an occupation dominated by women, it gained little respect.

At Los Alamos, the scientists’ wives were recruited in the early stages of the Manhattan Project to compute long math problems. Mathematicians — mostly men — would approximate the problem-solving horsepower of computing machines in “girl-years” and describe a unit of machine labor as equal to one “kilo-girl.”

Then the computers were replaced, first by mechanical calculators and later by digital computers. In 1944, Richard Feynman, then a junior staff member at Los Alamos, organized a contest between human computers and the Los Alamos IBM facility, with both performing a calculation for the plutonium bomb.

For two days, the human computers kept up with the machines. “But on the third day,” recalled an observer, “the punched-card machine operation began to move decisively ahead, as the people performing the hand computing could not sustain their initial fast pace, while the machines did not tire and continued at their steady pace.”

With the advent of the digital computer, female computers became “computer operators” and “programmers.” Six women ran one of the first general-purpose electronic computers, the ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. The operators were joined by female mathematicians and engineers who came from academia or the military or both. The most famous of these new recruits to IT was Grace Hopper, who was professor of mathematics at Vassar and enlisted during the war in the United States Navy Reserve. She served on the Mark I (another early electronic computer) programming staff, wrote and co-wrote some of the early papers on computers, and in 1949 joined Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation, one of the first IT startups.

Hopper popularized the term “computer bug” after her colleagues, the operators of the Mark II, traced the cause of the computer’s malfunction to a moth caught in a relay and wrote in their logbook “First actual case of bug being found.” A widely quoted and celebrated participant in the early days of the IT industry, Hopper observed, “Programmers… arose very quickly, became a profession very rapidly, and were all too soon infected with a certain amount of resistance to change.”

Hopper was a role model for many other women who graduated from college with a degree in mathematics or engineering and joined the rapidly expanding IT sector. In the 1960s, women made up 30 percent to 50 percent of all programmers. “The Computer Girls,” a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan magazine, encouraged women to consider careers in a profession with lucrative salaries and exciting work: “Now have come the big, dazzling computers — and a whole new kind of work for women: programming. Telling the miracle machines what to do and how to do it. Anything from predicting the weather to sending out billing notices from the local department store. And if it doesn’t sound like women’s work — well, it just is.”

By 1985, 37 percent of U.S. computer science college graduates were women. But in the late 1980s, the percentage of women in computer science started to go down even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising. In the 1960s and 1970s, the widespread use of aptitude testing and personality profiles in hiring practices helped create and reinforce the stereotype of the computer programmer as young, male, and antisocial. Early personal computers were marketed almost exclusively to males, mostly as gaming machines, reinforcing the idea that IT was only for boys and creating a “techie culture” from which women were excluded.

Today, only 17 percent of computer science college graduates are women. And only 26 percent of US workers in computing occupations are women, a rate lower than that of most other science professions.

Sources: David Allen Grier, When Computers Were Human, Princeton University Press, 2005; Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, MIT Press, 2002; Nathan Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, MIT Press, 2010; “When Women Stopped Coding,” NPR’s Planet Money, October 21, 2014.

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)