The first computer programmer was a woman. The top ‘human computers’ in the 1940s were women. It’s been all men since then, but now a new organisation is aiming to redress the imbalance – in Scotland at least.
Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace is known for her work on an early mechanical machine called the Analytics Engine invented by Charles Babbage. Its input consisted of punched cards, a method already in use in looms such as the Jacquard.
Her work included what is now recognised as the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine, making her the first computer programmer. But it would not be until the 1940s that computers, as we know them, would be built.
I found this out long after I first taught myself to code. It came as no surprise. I’d studied weave at Art School, and I found a lot of comfort, and similarities in the craft of coding.
Looking back at the history of computing, women played a dominant role. In 1945, six of the best “human computers” – Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder Holberton, Ruth Lichterman and Marlyn Wescoff – were hired by the leaders of the top secret ENIAC project, the first general purpose computer.
Coding implied manual labor, and mechanical translation or rote transcription. Thus women dominated the role, as they carried out work considered to be low in terms of professional status. There is proof, if ever you needed it, that women can code.
But, while women made up around 37% of computer science courses in the early 80s, less than 20% of computer science students are women today. How then, did we get to the point where, women make up only 27% of those employed in Britain’s digital industries, a figure well below the UK average? Why is it that for every one woman study computing, there are just over five men? Why do even fewer women enter technology-based workforce, and why do so many drop out?
This is a rich and exciting industry. It’s also an industry going through high growth and it doesn’t look like
it will slow down any time soon. Not only that, but in Scotland this sector is growing 32% faster than the rest of the UK economy, and the sector’s Edinburgh workers are among the highest paid in Britain. The average salary for a tech sector worker in Edinburgh is third in the UK at £51,000 a year.
What does seem to be clear is that this is a cultural issue, and specifically a Western phenomenon. In India and much of Asia, women’s participation in Computer Science has increased in the past 15 years. In India in 2011, women constituted 42% of undergraduate students in CS and computer engineering.
In addition, many Asian countries including India, have introduced legislation requiring a certain level of female boardroom inclusion. Although there have been initiatives in the UK
and Europe, we lag behind and have fallen short of mandatory quotas.
In Europe and the US, women are taking over many traditionally male dominated sectors. In the US women make up 62% of accountants and auditors; they are graduating in equal numbers to men in Law and Medicine, making up 56.9% of medical scientists, 61.2% of veterinarians, 68.8% of psychologists; and they comprise 54.7% of financial managers, 59.3% of budget analysts and 62.8% of insurance underwriters.
The myth that programming is for men only, is perpetuated. It’s everywhere you look, from the unequivocal stereotypes in comedy (Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd) to skirmishes on Twitter and a recent report which said that “women are considered better coders but only if they hide their gender.”
In 1984, something changed. The number of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged. NPR found that around the peak in the 80’s, computers began to be marketed to boys and men while women and girls were pushed aside.
This led to a situation where men entering university computer science courses already had plenty of experience with computers, while women did not. Market forces at their worst, left women feeling excluded by the culture surrounding computers. More recently, computer games consoles have done nothing to improve this situation.
Scotland’s technology culture is young. Its shape and direction will be determined by decisions we make today through policy, and in the cultures we develop within our businesses, our schools and our universities. We know that our technology and enterprise culture are imbalanced. It is time to do something about it.
As we face a skills deficit in technology, it is of economic importance to make technology-based, working envi- ronments as welcoming as possible to people of all gender identities, physical abilities, neurotypical or atypical people, religions and ethnicities.
The US has a more mature technology ecosystem, and we can learn from their mistakes and their successes. Scotland can also learn from India, where a non-western culture has encouraged entirely different innovations in technology working practices, often driven by market forces.
Girl Geek Scotland aims to draw attention to this issue as a cultural phenomenon and help to rebalance the ecosystem. We are seeking sponsorship to offer scholarships to women from India, to come to Scotland and study Data Engineering or a related subject, with the aim of encouraging a cultural exchange that will banish the myth that computing is a subject for men only. Let’s learn from their experiences why a career in computing is such an attractive proposition in India.
A condition of the scholarships will be that the students will be Ambassadors for Change, and will give high profile talks on the subject of positive change for women in IT and related subjects. We will be working with e-Placement Scotland to find Scottish businesses that will offer three month paid placements for the graduate scholars to fully experience the cultural diversity.
The students will be panel guests at a Girl Geek Scotland event, will speak at the host university and to an audience chosen by the Scholarship sponsors. In doing so, we hope to raise the profile of women in computing and encourage more women into Data Engineering, one of the fastest growth areas in our economy. Ada Lovelace would be proud.
Morna Simpson is the founder of Girl Geek Scotland www.girlgeekscotland.com