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Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding

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Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding


Episode 576: When Women Stopped Coding

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey, Stacey Vanek Smith here. We are doing a rerun today of a show we aired back in 2014. Here it is.


Computer science today is a male-dominated field. We know this. It's in the statistics. And just think of all the names you know - Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs - all dudes.


But, Caitlin, I got to tell you, I've been meeting these women, women whose names we should know too, badass computing pioneers, women who are now in their 70s and 80s but who programmed some of the first digital computers back in the days when software was written in machine language, in binary.

ELAINE KAMOWITZ: The numbers that you would set up to test had to be coded in binary and...

HENN: So can you still convert, like, 13 into binary in your head (laughter)?

KAMOWITZ: No, I can't (laughter) really easily.

HENN: All right. How do you - what does 13 in binary sound like?

KAMOWITZ: One, one, zero, one.

HENN: (Laughter) That's great. All right, 26 in binary.


KAMOWITZ: I didn't think this was a test.


HENN: That's Elaine Kamowitz (ph). She was a college student who got a job programming at Raytheon after a guy she was babysitting for discovered she was really good at math. Turned out, he worked there. Eventually, Elaine went to work for another woman, Elsie Shutt. And Elsie's a big deal in early programming. She started her own company, CompInc, in 1958. It was one of the first software companies in the world, and it was staffed entirely by women. She told me the story of how she landed her first contract to work on the operating system for Honeywell's new mainframe.

ELSIE SHUTT: And they asked if I would be willing to work on that, but it was much too big a job for me to do by myself. And the other women I had worked with had young children, including Elaine, Barbara Wade, Anne Kirby (ph). I mean, there were a number of them and I said we can work on this.

HENN: Elsie's company, CompInc, did really well. They had contracts with the U.S. government, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. space program. Businessweek wrote this big story about them.

KENNEY: So how did women go from being the center of the computing world, the pioneers of the industry, to being sidelined?

HENN: I think the answer lies somewhere in this graph. It's a graph of the percentage of women studying computer science from the '60s to today. And it compares those numbers to the numbers of women studying medicine and law and physical sciences. And, you know, the number of women in all these fields are all going up. It's like they're marching in lockstep. In the early '60s, it's just a few percent. In the '70s, it's like a quarter. By the early '80s, it's more than a third in every field. But then something big happens, something that changes the course of computer science.

KENNEY: Yeah. You can literally see this moment in the graphs where these lines are all together. And then the one for computer science, it sort of flattens out a little, starts to turn down and then it basically plunges. It's so striking to see.

HENN: And what's amazing about that is you can actually put your finger on the moment where this changed. It was 1984.


KENNEY: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

HENN: And I'm Steve Henn. Today on the show, what was going on in 1984 that made so many women give up on computer science? Today, we try to untangle this mystery in the U.S. labor force.


HENN: Caitlin, I've spent some time trying to immerse myself in 1984, figure this out. And there isn't an easy answer to the question. There was no grand conspiracy in computer science that we uncovered, no big decision by computer science programs to put a quota on women. There was no sign on a door that said, girls, keep out. But something strange was going on in this field. I mean, if you look at other technical fields - mechanical engineering, physics, math - the percentage of women kept growing, trending up. I mean, in some of these fields, it moves slowly, but it was always going up. In computer science, the opposite started happening.

KENNEY: So to try to figure out what happened, let's go back to a computer science class around this time. The year - 1984. The place - Johns Hopkins. The class - intro to minicomputers. One of the students in this class was Patty Ordonez, and Patty was exactly the kind of person you would think would end up majoring in computer science. She says, from an early age, she was a math geek.

PATTY ORDONEZ: The math teacher actually realized that I was really good, and she, like, started giving me more exercises. And I started getting tutored with this other guy, so we did math on recess (laughter) so it was kind of cool.

KENNEY: In high school, kids in her class called her the math genius. And when she got to college, she thought, computer science, no problem. I got this. But very quickly, her confidence vanished.

ORDONEZ: I had that first class of minicomputers. And I remember this one time I asked a question, and the professor kind of looked at me and he stopped and he just said, you should know that by now. And I thought to myself, I'm never going to excel.

HENN: And there were these other kids in that class, guys actually, who seemed to know everything the professor had to say before he even said it. Actually, there was this one guy, one guy in particular, Lee Van Dorn.

ORDONEZ: I just thought he was a frickin' genius. Oh, can I say that word (laughter)? Sorry, I just thought he was a genius. So I - I mean, he just looked like he knew so much. And he was always on the computer, and he was so enthusiastic about it.

HENN: I wanted to track this genius down, ask him how he seemed to know all the answers in this class in advance. I found him. He works in Seattle now, but Lee doesn't consider himself a genius. He said, yeah, that class was easy because by the time he got into class he'd already been programming for years.

LEE VAN DORN: And one of the first programs I wrote was an application for my mother to manage her bookstore inventory.

HENN: Lee wrote that program when he was 15 or 16. He actually converted it into machine language so it would run faster in his tiny little computer. So when he got to college, he nailed his computer science classes. He did really well. Today, he's a tech consultant for an energy company. But Patty's experience was totally different. She struggled through that computer science class. Eventually, she changed her major. The high school math geek ended up majoring in foreign language.

KENNEY: So this is one of the big changes happening in 1984. When that line on the graph starts to plunge, there were starting to be computer haves and computer have-nots. In 1984, you couldn't succeed in a computer science program without having had a home computer, and this bled into the workforce. Even if you weren't studying computer science but you wanted to work on it, you needed the experience of using one, of playing with one.

It was like Lee had taken this secret prerequisite that Patty didn't. Lee had a computer at home. Patty could've had one, but she didn't. So how did Lee end up with one? Well, he said it was in this store that he used to love to go to - RadioShack.

VAN DORN: It was one of those life-changing moments, you know (laughter)? So I walked into a RadioShack store, and there sitting on the counter, the front counter, there was a TRS-80 Model 1 computer. And essentially, it's nothing more than, like, a black-and-white TV set with a little box attached to it with a keyboard on it. But what was running on it was a little game. And it was, like, a little "Star Trek" game and you essentially were the captain of the Starship Enterprise. And you would go to different quadrants and encounter Klingons and destroy them and shoot photon torpedos and things like that.

HENN: "Star Trek," RadioShack - early home computers popped up in the places that were already the world of boys. And it wasn't really a surprise Lee wanted a computer. There were these ads around the time telling him to buy it. And the ads for personal computers, they were filled with boys who looked a lot like Lee. Here's one for the computer that Lee saw and fell in love with, the RadioShack TRS-80 Color Computer.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Some people have big plans after school. Know what Elliot's going to do? Jeff, too.

KENNEY: The opening shot is these two boys getting off a school bus - a dorky boy with glasses, Elliot, and a sporty boy holding a football, Jeff.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Elliott's at work on a book report using Scripsit on RadioShack's Color Computer 3. It hooks up to his TV. And Jeff's at his RadioShack Color Computer 3 playing the newest football game.

HENN: And here's another ad for Apple.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This morning, Brian Scott made a career decision. He decided to be an astronaut. His first giant step - learning to use an Apple.

KENNEY: Let's just throw one more at you. This one's for the Commodore 64.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Are you keeping up with the Commodore? 'Cuz the Commodore is keeping up with you.

KENNEY: Steve, I got to say, you and I have spent a lot of time now watching loads of these early computer ads from the '80s. And what's so striking about them, besides the super cheesy '80s music, is men and boys. In this Commodore 64 ad, there's sort of this dorky 12-year-old sitting at his computer and he gives this finger salute to the camera. In fact, in most of these ads, it's just men - all men.

HENN: Actually, there was one woman in this ad. She was in a bikini and she was jumping into a pool.

KENNEY: People who study women in tech, they talk about ads like this. Early in the '80s when computers were moving into the home, they couldn't do that much. There was one really good selling point, something exciting they had going, and that was that you could play games on them. So they were marketed to kids as toys. And just like most toys, the ads were targeted to just one gender.

HENN: Jane Margolis is an education researcher who's now at UCLA, and she has a theory about this.

You're saying when computers entered the home, they entered the home the same way, like, Tonka trucks enter the home, as something that...

JANE MARGOLIS: Exactly. Exactly - they entered the home as all the toys that involved work with tools, all the toys that are associated with science and math.

HENN: And so boys tended to play with them more. Dads tended to spend time with their sons doing it.

MARGOLIS: Yes, and brothers and groups of boys.

HENN: It's kind of hard to say if this was straight up sexism by computer manufacturers and their ad agencies or if they had data that boys were a better target market. But whatever it was, it fed on itself. In the 1990s, Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon, which at the time had pretty much the best program in the country. And she went and asked these young men and women about their earliest experiences with these machines. Turns out the story of Patty and Lee was pretty typical. Take this one student Jane interviewed named Lily.

MARGOLIS: She was the one who was really into computers in high school. But even though she was the one who was really into computers, the computer was placed in her brother's room.

KENNEY: Margolis interviewed every student studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon. And the pattern was striking and consistent. Another student told her a story about having to ask her brother for the key to the computer because it was actually locked away from her in his room. Now, you could point to that and say, OK, that's an extreme example. But Jane Margolis didn't find the reverse. There were no stories about boys having to ask for the key to the computer because it was locked away in their sister's room.

HENN: Once you have something like this happening, it reinforces itself. Computers are for boys. They are boy toys that boys use to do boy things. And this became a narrative, this story we told ourselves, like an actual story in movies.


ANTHONY HALL: (As Gary Wallace) OK, look, you know how you're always talking about how you can simulate all that stuff in your computer? You know? What's the difference? Why can't we simulate a girl?

KENNEY: This, of course, is "Weird Science" - super classic '80s movie. It stars Anthony Michael Hall. It was directed by John Hughes. And if you haven't seen it, here's a quick plot summary. These two high school nerds get together and decide to try to use a computer to create a woman. They connect a Barbie doll through a series of wires and electrodes. And then lightning hits the house. And the smoke clears. And out of the closet steps this hot woman.


KELLY LEBROCK: (As Lisa) So what would you little maniacs like to do first?

HENN: If you think about it, a lot of stories like this begin appearing around this time. "Revenge Of The Nerds" comes out in 1984, "WarGames" - 1983, and it's not just in Hollywood. Journalists fall in love with geek boy culture, too.

KENNEY: And it's not only that the stories glorify the nerdy boys and their computer. They actually started to push women out of this world, to make them feel not welcome.

HENN: In 1984, Steve Levy, the legendary technology journalist, published his book "Hackers: The Heroes Of The Computer Revolution." All the heroes are dudes. And here's a quote from the book. It's about women. It's kind of an exchange. Quote, (reading) "You knew that horribly inefficient and wasteful things like women, they burn too many cycles, occupy too much memory space." Then one of the hackers asks, how can you tolerate such an imperfect being?

KENNEY: Jane says you can see the effect of these movies and books. In her work at Carnegie Mellon, she found that half the women who went to school for computer science ended up quitting the program - dropping out, just like Patty did.

MARGOLIS: Because if you're in a culture that is so infused with this belief that men are just better at this and they fit in better, a lot can shake your confidence. You can be sitting next to a male student who could say, you don't know that, and you're a computer science major?

HENN: And these kinds of slights, they add up. One of the remarkable things about Margolis' research is that a lot of the women who were dropping out were actually great at this. More than half were on the dean's list.

KENNEY: Margolis had some idea about how this had happened. Computers come into the home. They're marketed to boys. And then culture glorifies the geeky tech male. But she wanted to figure out how to stop the clock, how to reverse this, how to find a way to get women back in.

HENN: Margolis did her research with a guy named Allan Fisher who was the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon at the time. So the two of them end up taking what they learned and tweaking the program to give girls a chance to make up for what they missed in those years when boys were messing around with computers in their bedrooms. Carnegie-Mellon added an intro course for students who didn't have a lot of informal computer science experience. They started paying a lot more attention to teaching.

KENNEY: And it worked. In just five years, they turned the school around. By 2000, 42 percent of the computer science students at Carnegie Mellon were women. And the dropout rate for men and women was basically the same.

HENN: Across the country, other schools have done similar things and had success. Harvey Mudd, the University of Washington in Seattle - turns out this is not an impossible problem to solve.

KENNEY: As for Patty who was scared out of the computer science class and went on to study foreign languages, she eventually went back. She got her Ph.D. in computer science. And today, she teaches it at the University of Puerto Rico.


HENN: We have a lot of people who we need to thank. Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd, Judy Estrin, Dame Steve Shirley - these are pioneers in this industry who were incredibly generous with their time. Telle Whiteny at the Anita Borg Institute and all the organizers of the Grace Hopper conferece. Thomas Misa, who edited a wonderful book called "Gender Codes" that attempts to untangle what happened to women in technology; Janet Abatte and Carolyn Clark Hayes contributed chapters to that book and have studied and written about these issues for years. They were enormously helpful.

Finally, I need to thank the hundreds of women computer scientists, industry refugees and students who shared their own stories about life in tech. And I wanted to thank everyone who responded to my tweets and helped us figure out what happened to women programmers who came of age in the '80s. Thank you.

KENNEY: And one more person, of course, to thank, Phia Bennon, who produced today's show. You can send us your comments and questions to If you want to see that graph we were talking about that shows the percentage of women in computer science along with the number of women in medical school and law school, you can find it on our website, And if you're looking for other things to listen to, NPR recommends the TED Radio Hour. Find it on iTunes under podcasts. I'm Caitlin Kenney.

HENN: I'm Steve Henn. Thanks for listening.

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