“The Secret History of Women in Coding: Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?” (NYT, February 13, 2019) describes a golden age of female nerddom from the 1950s through the mid-80s. Employers would recruit, train, and pay people who identified as women to write software in IBM 704 assembly language. They would even do this for applicants who identified as part of two victim groups (a “young black woman” is cited).
According to the newspaper, once it became conventional for programmers to get Computer Science degrees, the percentage of women choosing coding dropped:
If we want to pinpoint a moment when women began to be forced out of programming, we can look at one year: 1984.
Who was forcing them out, then? University professors and the environments that they set up! Women-hating CS faculty were apparently eager to send approximately half of the potential students, and the funding that would accompany them, into the arms of less sexist departments.
The women described in the article don’t support the narrative of the NYT. One left coding because she wanted to be a lawyer and had a successful four-decade career in the law (see Atlantic article below on how the availability of higher-paid and more prestigious work in, e.g., finance, medicine, law, and politics can draw women away from the last-resort jobs of engineer and computer programmer).
The comments are interesting. A young woman reading these would certainly choose some career other than programming. Women describes decades of misery and sexism in the cubicle plantations where they’ve been stuck (and now they don’t even get cubicles!). So we have the odd phenomenon of the NYT saying that they are passionate about pushing up the number of women in STEM while simultaneously writing articles that any rational young woman would interpret as a huge warning flag regarding a STEM career.
Alternative explanations are not considered by the journalist and editors. For example, the purported golden age of female coding ended just as programming changed character. The job of data scientist today is a lot more like what a “programmer” was doing in the 1970s.
Another alternative is that the golden age coincided with a time of maximum female economic insecurity. No-fault divorce was being rolled out, in which the husband could unilaterally shed the wife in favor of a younger sex partner. But post-divorce financial arrangements were subject to the whims of individual judges due to a lack of guidelines and precedent. Once known-in-advance rules were set up, a lot of married women concluded that they didn’t need to work (see the economic study by Voena cited in “Litigation, Alimony, and Child Support in the U.S. Economy”). Child support guidelines introduced in the 1980s made it more lucrative for a woman to have sex with an already-married dentist or doctor than to go to work as a software engineer (see Massachusetts family law, for example).
Nor does the Times consider why female-run profit-hungry employers don’t seek out women to hire, train, and exploit. Sheryl Sandberg runs Facebook and advertises her passion for the advancement of women. If there is a huge reservoir of female coding talent out there, why wouldn’t Facebook tap into it with an aptitude test and an in-house training program? The cost of training women to the standard of a BSCS is less than what Facebook is currently spending to recruit men. (Remember that most of the four years of a BSCS is spent doing stuff that doesn’t relate to being a software engineer. For one thing, a full two years is spent not being in school at all.) How about Epic Systems and its multi-billionaire founder who identifies as a woman? Why wouldn’t they save a ton of money by recruiting and training an all-female staff to relive the glorious days of the 1960s with their 1960s database technology? (Epic rejects the RDBMS!)
Finally, the Times doesn’t consider the apparent inconsistency between this article and the rest of their journalism. Capitalism is responsible for the evils of racism and sexism. Universities are where enlightenment prevails. Is it that CS professors are the exception to the general rule? And what’s their motivation? Why do they want to see the biology department get the fancy new building to accommodate all of the female students (now a majority on campus)?
Finally, the article is strong on its mischaracterization of what James Damore, the cast-out Google heretic, wrote. (Has anyone at any American newspaper actually read his infamous memo?)
Readers: What was your favorite comment on this piece? I like the ones that say that the waning of female nerddom was due to the high salaries that purportedly began to be paid to programmers (the BLS can’t find this! Programmers today get paid less, on average, than the women described in the article were getting way back when). None of these coastal elites ask why, if it is all about the Benjamins, the percentage of women is growing in the highest-paid fields, such as medicine and finance.
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