Computer girls make a comeback

Deborah Salmi 25 Oct 2011

Computer girls make a comeback

In much of the 20th century, women’s professional careers were largely limited to teaching, nursing or secretarial work. But from the 1940s through the 1960s, a blip occurred that has stirred the interest of workplace researchers and college career counselors. As the computer age was born, women were a driving force, and in fact, the very first programmers were women.

The Computer Girls article from Cosmo 1967

Nathan Ensmenger, an “information revolution” historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, unearthed an article from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine called The Computer Girls. The article described a career in computer programming as offering better job opportunities for women than many other professional careers. “It’s just like planning a dinner,” Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, herself a computer science pioneer and original coiner of the term “debugging”, explained to Cosmopolitan readers. “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Women programmers at the time were well-paid professionals who worked alongside male colleagues who treated them as peers. But one reason why women may have been welcomed into electronic computing, explained Ensmenger, is that male managers originally equated computer programming with clerical work. It was commonly assumed that the intellectual heavy-lifting would be in designing hardware, and those tasks were reserved for male engineers. When it was apparent that writing code was a indeed a challenge, the work shifted to men. Programming was then compared to chess-playing or mathematics which were stereotypical male activities. And that, dear readers, is how the "Geeks" were born and the Computer Girls left for other things.

Supposedly the trend is beginning to reverse itself, attributed in part to the state of the economy, according to career consultant Laurence Shatkin. Shatkin says that demand for technology positions tends to stay fairly consistent, even during recessions. High school and university career counselors are making an effort to attract women into the field of computer science. In the past year, the number of women majoring in computer science has nearly doubled at Harvard University. Right down the street at MIT, the number has increased 28 percent in the past three years. Female computer science majors went up from 1 in 5 in 2007 to 1 in 4 last year at Carnegie Mellon University. However, not all top computer science schools are reporting growth. At Stanford, women currently comprise 18 percent of computer science undergraduate majors, down from its 37 percent peak in 1985. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that the number of women pursuing computer science has been steadily decreasing.

Here at AVAST, we have our own Computer Girls, though the Geeks far outnumber them. At present we have one project manager and one graphic designer in our Operations department, one malware analyst in the Virus Lab, and two technical support specialists. I asked our malware analyst, Alena, a few questions about her interest in computer science as a career.

avast! Virus Lab malware analysts

How and when did your interest in computers begin?

My father always tried to push me towards computers because he said that it has a future. For half of my free time I played the piano, which was my mother’s dream. (I hated it.) And the other half I was discovering the computer world.

When did you begin programming?

I had my first computer really early. My father paid a great amount of money for a dial-up internet connection at the time. But I was not programming back then – or just a little. But a year before I finished high school I decided I wanted to become a software developer. I always loved math and programming, so it seemed to be the right thing - creative and challenging. That’s how I got to Czech Technical University, where last year I finished my Bachelor’s degree in software engineering. Now I am studying to get my Master’s degree.

Why do you think girls are not studying computer science?

I am not sure, but I don’t consider computers to be as “girly” as picking out new clothes or talking about the boy next door – but I manage to do all these things. In my opinion, it feels natural for a girl to study economics or become a lawyer but not a software engineer, which is a shame. There are plenty of clever girls who would be excellent programmers. In my case, it was probably my parent’s encouragement and later my friends, many of them also interested in computer science, so it hasn’t felt that strange.

So for you, it was encouragement from home rather than school that got you interested.

My parents were always supportive although it was kind of strange to my girlfriends when I decided to go to a completely different school than anyone else. From my high school, I was the only one from both girls and boys who decided to study computer science that year.

What is the ratio of men to women in your computer science related classes?

When I was studying for my bachelor’s degree, my friend and I were the only two girls studying software engineering that year. But there were maybe twenty to thirty other girls focused on web and multimedia or marketing, but still studying in the School of Electrical Engineering. In general, the ratio was maybe one girl to twenty boys. But it’s getting better year after year.

AVAST Software could attract and hire more women as developers, analysts and tech support. Is there anything you would recommend we do in our recruiting process to attract more women?

Maybe it would help if Avast were more visible in colleges because that is the most important place to attract young women studying computer science. Google worldwide is doing plenty of things to attract girls to become software engineers, maybe we can learn from them.

Computer girls and geeks alike - Check out career opportunities with AVAST Software

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