In the June 2019 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Clive Thompson wrote a revealing and compelling long-form article on the evolution of the computer. You can read the full article online here: Smithsonian: The First Computers were Human
What was most troubling to me was the sexism and racism in the 19th century that even lingers today in the field of Computer Science. The earliest “computers” were human. There was difficult, complex math problems to solve that could take days each to solve. In those days, white educated men thought that being a “computer” was beneath them. Institutes such as a the Harvard Observatory, processing reams of astronomic data gathered by the use of the telescope required teams of people to process the data. It hired an all-female team of computers to do the data processing. Like in today’s times, the pay for female computers was as low as half as much as men were paid.
These origins point to inequality in pay for women now in the 21st century. The work of a computer was considered to be “rote and de-skilled.” says Mar Hicks, historian and author of Programmed Inequality.
The article goes on to quote Ms. Hicks:
“In a lot of cases, the women doing these computation jobs actually had to have pretty advanced math skills and math training, especially if they were doing very complex calculations.”
“They had to keep working eight hours a day doing the same equation over and over again–it must have been mind-numbing.”
World War I and II both greatly increased the need in the U.S. for computers for artillery-trajectory calculations and tables for the Army.
After the wars, the cold war and the space race was on. The NACA (later NASA) was progressive in their pay, and even hired married women with children. Katherine Johnson was a stand-out computer, memorialized in the movie, Hidden Figures, and her role in getting John Glenn into orbit. Glenn requested to speak directly with Ms. Johnson to be assured that she had reviewed and confirmed the flight path.
At NASA, there was a tremendous amount of respect for these women computers as their male counterparts were often not as good at math. However, around the same time that that NASA started putting people in space, the digital computer from IBM first arrived.
Yet, women were at the forefront of the new revolution. Coding in the early days was very laborious and tedious. It was seen as something anyone could do and beneath their male engineer counterparts.
There still is a tension today as Computer Science is a more prestigious field with the rise of Silicon Valley and the explosion of companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. Yet, there are still persistent reports of those companies being a “boys club,” and fewer promotions for talented women programmers. Sexual harassment is an appalling problem that continues in the 21st century workplace.
The unsettling trend is that the number of women coders have regressed in the past few decades. Thompson writes in his article that the percentage of coders who were women in 1990 was about 35 percent and has decreased to 26 percent in 2013 according to the American Association of University Women.
I have two young, smart daughters and it is important for me to help them find their own way in fields of study that interest them and to pursue whatever dream they want to in their lives. I want them to grow up in a world that doesn’t limit them because they are female or typecast them into a role based on society’s perception. I want to live in a world where someone isn’t selected for a job or told what they can or cannot do based on their sex, their skin color, their age, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, or any other type of discrimination. Let people’s work speak for itself.