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1967: When Computer Science Was 'Women's Work' Because It's 'Like Planning A Dinner'

Culture | September 12, 2019

A woman working on a Honeywell tape drive computer, circa 1969. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

In the late 1960s, computers were hulking, unsexy machines that looked a lot more like a dishwasher than an iPhone. They would end up changing our lives drastically, but 50 years ago, people were trying to wrap their heads around what they could do, why they were important, and whether they might turn evil and blow up the planet. Day-to-day computer work -- data entry -- because it somewhat resembled secretarial duties, often fell to women.

A Field So New That Nobody Owned It

What Sort of Man Owns His Own Computer, Apparently not the Men of the '60s (behindthescenes.nyhistory.org)

Today, tech companies rule over the business world like powerful overlords, combining brains and massive amounts of capital into a dominating combination. Working at Google, Facebook, or Apple offers a cache similar to working for the oil industry way back when. They are the giants of the largest and fastest-growing industry.

Unfortunately, like many other parts of our patriarchy, the tech industry is almost entirely male-dominated. Only 18% of leadership roles within the tech industry are held by women. However, it didn’t always used to be that way. 

The State Of Tech In The Groovy Era

Keypunch and Computer Girls Earned a Place in Early Tech (behindthescenes.nyhistory.org)

If you’ve seen the recent movie, “Hidden Figures,” you’ll know that women were prominently involved in the space race during the Cold War. What that movie failed to shed light on were the “keypunch girls.” These were rows and rows of women, sitting in stifling hot rooms, who translated program instructions onto punch cards for their male equivalents who then fed those instructions into code decks. Obviously, women possessed more than enough ability to run the whole show but lacked the road to advancement. Naturally, women found a way.

'Computer Girls'

Grace Hopper Teaching Cobol, ca. 1960s. Computer History Museum (behindthescenes.nyhistory.org)

Back in yesteryear, we believed computer hardware was the key to advancing technology. Therefore, the few men interested in nerdy things like computers entered the field in modest numbers. Software, on the other hand, was considered less important and women were encouraged to enter the field.

In a 1967 Cosmopolitan story, Adm. Grace Hopper gave a rather cringe-worthy quote explaining why computer programing was ideal for women, “It’s just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it.”

If You Offer Respect And Dignity They Will Come

"Hidden Figures" Told the Age Old Story of what Happens When Women Get a Chance (charlestoncitypaper.com)

When the Cosmopolitan article hit newsstands in 1967, 11% of computer science majors were women. By 1984, that number reached 37% and while women didn’t dominate the field, they considered themselves “fully accepted as professionals” and treated as close to equal as the ‘60s would allow. What a concept!

James Adams, the director of education for the Association for Computing Machinery, marveled at the opportunities for women, “I don’t know of any other field, outside of teaching, where there’s as much opportunity for a woman.”

Location, Location, Location

The Glamours of Early Technology (smithsonianmag.com)

Another advantage for women entering the tech field at the time was the physical location of the average computer science building. Most computer labs were held within the liberal arts colleges as opposed to the engineering or science buildings. Women had already made inroads into the liberal arts colleges and found fewer obstacles to success. 

What Went Wrong

Women in Tech Wasn't an Uncommon Sight in the '60s (pinterest.com)

Unfortunately, the relative equality between men and women in the field of computing didn’t last. Once 1984 hit, men started to realize the power and importance the tech industry could hold. The men in hardware also decried the fact that their industry was deemed “women’s work.”

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “Ads began to connect women staffers with error and inefficiency. They instituted math puzzle tests for hiring purposes that gave men who had taken math classes an advantage, and personality tests that purported to find the ideal “programming type”. Technology is awesome; we all mostly love it. However, it would have been interesting to see what it might have become with more of a woman’s touch. 

Tags: Computers | Remember This?... | Technology | Equality

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!