When Women Stopped Coding : Planet Money For decades, the share of women majoring in computer science was rising. Then, in the 1980s, something changed.

When Women Stopped Coding

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The field of computer science is dominated by men. It has not always been that way. On this program recently, NPR's Laura Sydell told the story of some pioneers of computing, women who programmed the first digital computers. For decades, the number of women in computer science grew faster than the number of men, but then we get to 1984. The percentage of women in computer science flattened and then plunged. Steve Henn from NPR's Planet Money team has been learning about what happened.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Patty Ordonez was a math geek in high school. When she got to Johns Hopkins in 1984, she figured comp sci would be no problem.

PATTY ORDONEZ: I had that first class of minicomputers back then. I remembered this one time, I asked a question, and the professor kind of looked at me. And he just stopped, and he just said, you should know that by now.

HENN: Which was weird. This was an introductory class. It's not like many high schools at the time were teaching computer science. And yet Ordonez was already behind.

ORDONEZ: And I thought to myself, I'm never going to excel.

HENN: A lot of the kids in this class seemed to know the answers before the professor even asked the questions. And actually there was this one kid, one guy in particular, named Lee Van Dorn.

ORDONEZ: I just thought he was a freaking 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.

HENN: Ordonez got her first C ever in that computer science class. Soon she dropped out of the program. Van Dorn, the genius, got an A. I tracked him down. He's now a tech consultant in Seattle. Lee remembers that time, and he says Patty was wrong. He wasn't some kind of genius. He had something Patty didn't - a home computer.

LEE VAN DORN: I walked into a RadioShack, and there sitting on the counter, the front counter, there on the right side, there was a TRS-80 Model 1 computer.

HENN: It had games. It was awesome, and it was actually the key to his college success. By the time Lee got to Johns Hopkins, he had spent thousands of hours programming the thing. So this was one of the big changes that happened around 1984 - small, home computers. There were starting to be computer haves and computer have-nots. So why did Lee have this advantage and Patty didn't? Well, in 1984, ads for personal computers were really just targeted at boys.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This morning, Brian Scott made a career decision. He decided to be an astronaut; his first, giant step - learning to use an Apple.

HENN: The first home computers are sold as toys. And like toys everywhere, there was a strong gender preference.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) In a world of fun and fantasy.

HENN: In one ad, for the Commodore 64 in the early '80s, there are a half dozen guys using the machine with only one woman in the commercial. She's wearing a bathing suit, and she's jumping into a pool.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Are you keeping up with the Commodore? Because the Commodore is keeping up with you.

HENN: Jane Margolis is an education researcher at UCLA. I asked her if ads like this had an effect on who ended up using computers. She said absolutely.

When computers entered the home, they entered the home the same way, like, Tonka Trucks entered the home...

JANE MARGOLIS: Exactly. Exactly, they entered the home as all the toys that involved working with tools.

HENN: Now, it's hard to say if this is straight-up sexism or computer makers just had data that boys were a more receptive audience, but whatever the reason, this fed on itself. In the mid-'80s, you could turn on the TV and see women doctors on "St. Elsewhere." Claire Huxtable was a lawyer on "The Cosby Show" - cops? - "Cagney & Lacey." But pretty much anytime a computer was turned on, it was a male nerd running it. Think "WarGames," "Revenge Of The Nerds," "Weird Science."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, look, you know how you're always talking about how you can simulate all that stuff on your computer? You know, what's the difference? Why can't we simulate a girl?

HENN: By the mid-'90s computer science departments had been transformed. Carnegie Mellon, which had one of the best programs in the country, was 93 percent men. The number of women entering the field had slowed to a trickle, but Patty Ordonez was one of them. Even though she dropped out of her comp sci class in '84, more than a decade later she went back. Today she has a Ph.D. in the field and teaches introductory computer science. Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, what some in tech are doing to turn around this industry and bring more women into the fold. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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