Google Heretic sparks interest in the history of Computer Science

James Damore, a.k.a. the Google Heretic, has spurred my Facebook friends to talk about the history of Computer Science. A sample illustrating how the early years of CS are now understood:

in the beginning computer science used to be almost entirely women.

It’s hard to find a profession less suited to illustrate women’s alleged biological unsuitability for certain vocations than computer science and specifically programming, given the history of the profession. … “Women aren’t good with computers”? They _were_ the original computers. (NASA article)

Piling abuse onto the already-cast-out heretic being a well-respected human endeavor, I responded with

So true. Church, Turing, von Neumann, and Emil Post all identified as women.

That’s why it is always “E.F. Codd” for the RDBMS pioneer. She didn’t want anyone calling her Edgar.

The non-nerds accepted these as legitimate responses. A couple of programmers, though, offered up Ada Lovelace.

When I asked for examples of what these folks thought of as early “computer science” it was setting up patch cords for the ENIAC.

It is kind of an interesting history. Women created computer science. After the excitement of the first few decades was gone, women wandered off into law, medicine, business, banking, politics, etc., and left working out the remaining dull details to colorless men.

25 Comments »

  1. Anonymouse

    August 9, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    1

    Yeah, and I’ll never forget Brianna Kernighan and Denise Ritchie, who gave us C and Unix, which gave me a career.

  2. superMike

    August 9, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

    2

    Here’s a woman that ran a successful IT enterprise using only women (until discrimination laws forced her to hire men): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Shirley
    Perhaps the pioneer of the whole: “if women really do get paid less than men, why doesn’t someone seize the competitive advantage there?” concept.

  3. P James

    August 9, 2017 @ 2:14 pm

    3

    I do not attempt to explain the workings of my cell phone to the orangutans when I am at the zoo.

  4. philg

    August 9, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    4

    Anonymouse: Your comment is offensive and inaccurate. Among other things, you left out the contributions of Kendra Thompson, Josephine Ossanna, Doreen McIlroy, and Robin Pike.

    Remember that Unix is more than just a language that makes everyone say “I feel unsafe.”

    [Of course, for language design I tend to celebrate Johanna McCarthy, Rachel Boyce, and Donna Chamberlin.]

  5. jack crossfire

    August 9, 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    5

    Besides the role of wiring core memory being a “woman’s job” in those days, they might have also been motivated to become IBM types by the sexual revolution. It feels like they thought any social order was possible in the 1960’s. Today, the social order is a lot more rigid. Men have to pay for maternity leave & post natal care by law, if not by custom. The rise of AIDS terminated the sexual revolution & status became a lot more important again in picking husbands.

  6. philg

    August 9, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    6

    Jack: You might be on to something. https://www.ncwit.org/sites/default/files/resources/womenintech_facts_fullreport_05132016.pdf says that the peak of women in “computing occupations” (broader than CS per se) was 1991. That’s almost exactly coincident with the nationwide introduction of state-by-state child support guidelines that made it straightforward to calculate the cash value of having children. Also, that’s roughly coincident with the first generation that could talk to a retiring programmer and find out what the career had been like (since there weren’t many programmers until the 1960s).

  7. Ivan

    August 9, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

  8. philg

    August 9, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

    8

    Ivan: I think that both you and superMike can be correct. You’re citing companies in the U.S., right? “Steve” Shirley was operating in the UK and the Wikipedia article links to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_Discrimination_Act_1975 (a UK law) as the motivation for her to hire more men.

  9. Ivan

    August 9, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

    9

    Actually, the Van Girls company is located in London as well as the last, the less successful company in the list, was.

  10. Naum

    August 9, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

    10

    I earned a Computer Science degree in the 80s at a state school — where I recall half or more of the students in the program were female. And my 1st professional jobs (one at a steel mill, the next for a very large global charge card company), female programmers outnumbered male programmers. At some point this balance began to change dramatically (there is a chart going around on Twitter re: CS enrollment by gender that shows a drop-off in late 80s of women v. men).

    Fast forward to 2010 when I volunteered in helping organizer put on a Ruby conference. There, every single attendee (100+) plus every volunteer sans the organizer wife were male.

  11. philg

    August 9, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

    11

    Ivan: Hmm… I’m at a loss to explain then. Maybe she read the gender-neutral text of the law and thought that it might actually be enforced in a gender-neutral manner!

  12. Coward

    August 9, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

    12

    The drop in female programmers also coincided with the introduction of the H-1B visa.

  13. philg

    August 9, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

    13

    Coward: https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/h1b-visa-program-fact-sheet confirms that the program was started in 1990.

    [Also, that everything you learned in Econ 101 is wrong: “the overwhelming evidence shows that H-1B workers do not drive down wages of native-born workers” and “workers do not necessarily compete against each other for a fixed number of jobs”.]

    Your theory makes sense. Why pay extra to persuade one of the few women programmers to join your company when you can hire a foreigner?

  14. anonymale

    August 9, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

    14

    I must insist on the inclusion of my personal heroes Kendra E. Iverson, Kenisha Dybvig, and Richelle Sugar-Lips Hamming (who did great work on comms theory with Claudia Shannon – though seemed to clash with the Bletchley team of Alice Turing and Izzie J. Good).

    Bletchley was interesting in that leadership was all-female, while the intercepted enigma messages were mechanically encoded on typewriters by a large staff of men who refused to participate in unfairly gender-stereotypical war duties.

  15. Roger

    August 9, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

    15

    You guys are overlooking all those black women geniuses behind putting a man on the moon.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures

  16. Vince

    August 9, 2017 @ 8:18 pm

    16

    And my 1st professional jobs (one at a steel mill, the next for a very large global charge card company), female programmers outnumbered male programmers.

    Naum:
    Were you doing COBOL programming on mainframes at these two employers?

  17. Steve

    August 10, 2017 @ 6:53 am

    17

    1990 was also an inflection point where the PC began to overtake the mainframe. I suspect the largest employers pre-1990 were stable monopolies: Bell Labs, IBM, and the DOD. Post 1990 the largest sources of programming jobs were West Coast startups.

    This link blames the PC for declining female interest in programming:
    http://www.computerscience.org/resources/women-in-computer-science/

    They blame “gamer culture” and the growing stereotype of programmers as nerds, whereas I’m suggesting that monopolist cash cows had more appeal to women programmers than the stock option lottery.

    The H-1B Visa issue is also interesting. It isn’t just women not wanting to compete with H-1Bs, but most H-1Bs themselves are men, which skews the employment statistics. This article points out that the Feds refuse to track the gender mix of H-1B visas: http://www.computerworld.com/article/3050365/it-careers/how-many-h-1b-workers-are-male-us-wont-say.html

  18. philg

    August 10, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    18

    Thanks for the link, Steve. I love this one: “The University of California at Berkeley experienced a revolution in their introductory computer science classes after changing how they marketed the course. What used to be known as Introduction to Symbolic Programming is now called The Beauty and the Joy of Computing.”

    If they restricted the material to stuff that fit the course title, maybe they shortened the course to just one week?

  19. crazytrainmatt

    August 10, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    19

    @philg 18

    Luckily that Cal course with the fluffy title is the nonmajors’ course.

    The real heresy is that they capitulated to practicality and dropped the Abelson and Sussman purple book from the majors’ introductory course (CS 61A), relegating Scheme to two lectures!

  20. the other Donald

    August 10, 2017 @ 7:55 pm

    20

    Thank God I was a mechanical engineer working on jet engines, turbofans actually.

  21. Anonymous

    August 11, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

    21

    Most of what’s written about Lovelace is revisionist nonsense, as Doron Swade explains: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K5p_tBcrd0#t=36m0s

  22. Anonymous

    August 11, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    22

    Previous link off by 29s, sorry

  23. Karen J

    August 11, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

    23

    At first I thought the lib rejoinder “women were the original programmers/computer scientists” was stupid too, considering most of the critical theoretical advances in the topic were made by men. Then it occurred to me that most current software development jobs are far more akin to the dismal tedious ENIAC “computer” jobs than to the work done by Von Neumann or Post. or do the men on this thread think that when they write a simple join statement that they are doing something cognitively equivalent to creating a new lambda calculus? LOL

  24. philg

    August 11, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

    24

    Karen: Great point! One of the things that makes programmers insufferable is our sense of superiority. Guys who work in other male-dominated careers don’t infer from this that “this is proof of our genetic superiority.” The guy who shows up to pump our septic system every year doesn’t say “If there were more women on the right tail of the IQ distribution they could be doing this job.” But I feel like a hero whenever I can get a SQL statement more complex than “SELECT * FROM USERS” to function. (Though, due to the fact that my best SQL student ever was a woman, I don’t feel superior to women when I can get a JOIN to work.)

  25. philg

    August 11, 2017 @ 2:37 pm

    25

    Anonymous: Thanks for that YouTube link. The last part is interesting. Lovelace was actually more like Turing in seeing that a rat-simple machine could do arbitrarily complex symbolic manipulations and computations about stuff other than numbers. It is sad that she died at 36 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace , which also says “She lost contact with her husband after she confessed something to him on 30 August which caused him to abandon her bedside. What she told him is unknown.”). It is too bad that she couldn’t have lived at least to see the Hollerith machines (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Hollerith ).

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