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Why women stopped coding - what happened in the 80s

(119 Posts)
noblegiraffe Sat 08-Nov-14 13:39:15

Fascinating graph here of women studying comp sci in the US.

This podcast looks at what happened in the 80s which might have influenced this trend.

The image of geeky men as programmers is manufactured and nothing to do with men being better at tech - most programmers at the beginning were women.

MyEmpireOfDirt Sat 08-Nov-14 14:02:14

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Amethyst24 Sat 08-Nov-14 14:03:03

I was reading about this very thing in Delusions of Gender the other day. It's amazing how we assume it's always been this way, and it just hasn't.

noblegiraffe Sat 08-Nov-14 14:17:50

The suggestion from the podcast was that home computers were marketed as games machines to boys (they play some adverts), so boys coming to Uni to study comp sci already had computer experience leading them to succeed where girls were overwhelmed and dropped out.

They say, interestingly, that a university that introduced an introductory computer science course for those with no prior experience of computing managed to improve the retention of female students.

PuffinsAreFicticious Sat 08-Nov-14 14:17:53

Iirc, doesn't it have something to do with early coders being seen as glorified typists, so naturally women would be soo much better at that, so they were paid a commensurately crappy amount, but, as computers came to take over more and more of businesses lives, these women were more in demand, so better paid, so men thought they'd do it too?

Further, computers were introduced into schools in the 80's, giving more people access to them, which, along with them being the thrusting new thing to get into, maybe more boys became interested? As more boys became interested, and more jobs were taken by men, it sort of became a self fulfilling prophecy of which sex went into it/studied it at school?

Might it also have something to do with the recession at the end of the 80's? Fewer jobs, more redundancies and a perception that men 'need' the job more because they'll have families to support?

No facts to back any of that up, but, remembering the attitude of workplaces during the 80s/90's recession, it wouldn't surprise me at all.

MyEmpireOfDirt Sat 08-Nov-14 14:26:55

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MyEmpireOfDirt Sat 08-Nov-14 14:28:29

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ezinma Sat 08-Nov-14 15:27:13

The most interesting bit of that graph to me though, is around 2002/2003. What happened?

The collapse of the first 'tech boom' around 2000 would have put some people off doing a computer science degree. Also, it became harder for students to get a US visa after 9/11. Women might be over-represented in these categories because they were under-represented overall.

DP works for a big IT firm. It rarely hires graduates with qualifications in computer science. The reasoning seems to be that it wants employees to have a variety of skills other than coding and programming (which are outsourced to China and India more often than not). Several of the young women in IT that I've met say they had no interest in computing as youngsters, and they're markedly less obsessed with tech and gadgets than most of the men they work with. They also tend to be a lot more interesting to talk to, for an outsider.

funnyvalentine Sat 08-Nov-14 15:41:21

The 2002/3 dip was caused by the dotcom bubble in 2000, as it led to a drop in CS intake. The graph is of graduation, not starting the course, hence the 3yr offset. I was one of those graduating in CS in 2002 smile

In the early 80s, computing became much more of a hobby than previously, hence far more subject to advertisers' whims.

MyEmpireOfDirt Sat 08-Nov-14 15:45:58

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MyEmpireOfDirt Sat 08-Nov-14 15:46:29

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Archfarchnad Sat 08-Nov-14 15:51:41

I've got a personal anecdote about why I didn't go ahead with computer studies in the 1980s. No idea how typical this experience was.

It must have been 1986. Options evening at our school - the parents' evening for Year 11 (was then called 5th year senior) when teachers for each subject basically told you whether it was a good idea for you to choose it for A-Level (this was pre-AS level days, so it was A-level or nothing). I had taken O-level computer studies where we did some elementary BASIC programming as an introduction to the subject, and really enjoyed it (got an A in pre-A* days), and unusually for the time the CS teacher was female and really supported me. But at the options evening the teacher was male and was incredibly disparaging about the idea of me taking A-level computers, really tried to put me off, giving one-word answers etc - and sadly it worked. I slinked away, mortified, and ultimately chose three arts subjects. Later that evening we were talking to a teacher at the next table, and saw that the computer guy was talking to a male friend of mine and his dad - the experience couldn't have been more different for them, they were laughing together, exchanging computer-related stories, talking about careers in computing, etc. My friend went on to take A-level, then onto an IT-related degree and still works in the industry. So there you have it, if you're male, come and do the course, if you're female, bog off back to your Eng Lit.

It's not that simplistic of course. In all honesty I wouldn't have been a great programmer in any case. And my female friend who is in her 50s was recruited for IT upon leaving university with an MFL degree, and has remained a very successful IT manager - which proves that even then it WAS possible for women to get into the industry if they wanted it enough. But the discrimination was there nonetheless.

funnyvalentine Sat 08-Nov-14 16:46:58

arch why do you think you wouldn't have made a good programmer?

I wonder if the dotcom burst had more effect on female applications than male? Perhaps when computing looked good, people were keen to suggest it to women as it seemed exciting and full of promise. And when it looked bad again, they reverted to stereotypes? Dont know why the effect on other sciences though.

forago Sat 08-Nov-14 16:57:50

interesting. I graduated in science in 93, worked in science for a couple of years then did a masters in IT and have been working in IT ever since, now self-employed. TBH i found getting on the course and into the companies was the easy part - staying there and putting up with the extraordinary amount of sexist shit in male-dominated IT departments in the City (where most IT jobs are) in the 90's/2000's was the hard part. I suspect many women just thought fuck this for a game of soldiers. In fact many of the technical women I started off with moved into project management. I started off as the only woman in my technical team 17 years ago and have been at every single job and contract since. It is starting to get a bit better i think, but only recently (now many of the arseholes who don't really think women should be working and have the "her indoors" at home are finally retiring / dying off)

Archfarchnad Sat 08-Nov-14 17:03:06

funny perhaps I'm falling into the trap of doing myself down too much because that's what patriarchy has taught us to do. But really I suspect my maths skills weren't good enough (only a C at O-level), and that was at least partly because we had a bad and lazy maths teacher for 5 years (who was equally apathetic about girls and boys). And when we did an Elementary Logic course for philosophy at uni I didn't exactly shine either.

forago Sat 08-Nov-14 17:10:32

I wasn't that great at Maths and it was my weakest subject at school (flukey B)/but I can write programs and can think in hex smile - I now wish I'd done CS not a biological science at Uni as I think id have found it really interesting - as I did when I got into it later during first science job - and I'd quite like to have got into the academic side.

Now my eldest is approaching gcese maths it all makes much more sense to Mr and I think why wasn't I better at Maths at school? I think possibly women develop later math-wise but is that because they aren't really encouraged as much? At my school they could just about handle a couple of girls being top of the class at science subjects but I remember Maths (and the expectations) and there for CS being totally dominated by the boys. Sadly, its exactly the same now in my sons class.

vettles Sat 08-Nov-14 17:47:27

EBearhug Sat 08-Nov-14 17:49:22

I agree - it's hard work being a woman in the more techy areas of IT. There is a lot of sexism, and a lot of women do end up thinking, why am I bothering? (Although, twatty, bullying departmental manager, you need not think I am giving up without a fight, and you need not think Friday's antics will be allowed to pass without comment, either.)

A good book is "Gender Codes - Why Women are leaving Computing" (Thomas Misa ed.) which talks about the professionalism of IT and how women get pushed out. There have been a lot of very competent women in the history of computing, and yet at university, I only heard about blokes like Kernigan and Ritchie - Grace Hopper didn't even get a mention in all the lectures on compilers. And about 40% of the academic staff on our course were women (better than in industry.)

I find coding very frustrating, because so often things don't work because of one mismatched semi-colon or something. Oddly, I can be really pedantic about SPAG, and can spot a misplaced apostrophe in text from a mile off, so I don't know why the same sort of thing bothers me in coding. I am good at spotting others' errors in their code, it's just my own that drove me wild, and have done almost none since I graduated. And it's good background for the sys administration I do do.

I too am used to being the only woman in the department, and went on one techy course on storage admin where the woman behind reception cheered when I walked into the training building. The
Report for 2013 says 64% of women in tech have felt discriminated against in their job because of their gender (It's a question that doesn't seem to have been asked at all in the [[ 2014 survey.) My employer is actually pretty good at supporting women in general, although particular departments have not got the message. <stares pointedly at twattish bullying departmental manager.> I've been for interviews with other companies, and one in particular, I really didn't get a woman-friendly vibe, and decided early on that I wouldn't take it if offered (before it became clear that my CV had been adjusted by the recruitment agent to include experience I've never had.)

There is a lot of poor people management in IT, partly because in some companies, you can only get so far in technical roles; to progress further, you have to go into people management, and not all people who are very technically skilled also have good people skills, which I think, while not absent in other areas, is less of an issue in areas such of sales and marketing and customer support, because you have to have people skills to do those roles in the first place.

It's not just women who suffer from poor management, but women are also more likely than men to suffer from unconscious bias and stereotype threat. There are plenty of articles out there on how women tend to be better qualified and experienced and have to achieve more to be seen as level with their colleagues, let alone better. I match that stereotype...

And in the end, a lot of women think, I can't be bothered to fight this any more - especially if they've had a career break because of maternity leave or whatever. There is also the issue with "the pipeline" and women being less likely to study STEM subjects - that's not necessarily an issue, because cross-training is good, and actually, as someone mentioned above, having other skills beyond the mere technical is usually an asset. I think we who work in IT do have to do more to change the image of what it's like to work in technology careers - a lot of people still think it's just beardy blokes huddled over keyboards and surrounded by empty pizza boxes and soda cans - and there are still some of those around (well, not with the pizza boxes in the office, but only because they're not allowed,) but there is such a huge range of roles these days, and it can be so interesting and well-paid and flexible, it should be ideal for women. And many of the women who are high up in my company have had very varied careers - few have gone up a traditional career ladder. I think we need to emphasise that, too, that you're not necessarily committing yourself for life, but technical understanding and knowledge is probably going to be an advantage in any other job these days, so what have you got to lose?

(I'll just keep my soapbox over here, because I'll probably be using it again soon...)

EBearhug Sat 08-Nov-14 17:54:37

Let me just redo those links -

The Computer Weekly/Mortimer Spinks Women in Technology
Report for 2013 says 64% of women in tech have felt discriminated against in their job because of their gender (It's a question that doesn't seem to have been asked at all in the 2014 survey.)

forago Sat 08-Nov-14 18:00:26

lol, I'm a storage person, the only female one in London, apparently - though I did see one on Linked in once.

I have to say that in the last few years I have noticed a bit of positive sexism coming into play, lot of people keen to employ me because I make their diversity stats look good - or is that the patriarchy again and its actually because I am awesome! smile

I think a lot of big companies are beginning to worry about the lack of female techies around (and even less coming through from schools than in my day judging by what I see at the DC schools) - its harder for them to get away with all male teams under current diversity laws and expectations I think. Not sure where they're going to get them from though.

cadno Sat 08-Nov-14 18:00:37

In the early 1980's program languages like FORTRAN had to be fed into a computer via a sheet of cardboard with holes punched into it - and this was on a University's mainframe computer. It was very frustrating as you wouldn't know know if your program would execute properly until the next day when the results was available to you. By the early 1990's, you were running text files to create the machine code to give the executable files - which made everything a lot faster

I don't recall you needing very much maths for it - but an understanding of logic and certainly eye for detail was vital.

redwarf Sat 08-Nov-14 19:35:52

anyone got any good ideas how to get more women into Stem subjects?

Passmethecrisps Sat 08-Nov-14 19:44:45

Fascinating graph. I teach computing at a secondary school having started in 2000 the numbers were 50/50 male to female. That nose dived in the next two years and has never really recovered. We could never explain why despite making great efforts to try various different programmes.

Our games design classes are now almost exclusively male despite having a split of male and female staff.

I used to wonder if I put them off!

Passmethecrisps Sat 08-Nov-14 19:45:50

And regarding maths - I have a very poor marsh background but can cope well with the logic required in computing. It is a different kind of skill set I think

Passmethecrisps Sat 08-Nov-14 19:46:14

Maths. Not marsh. My marsh knowledge is definitely poor

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