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Hey, Remember When Coding Software Was Considered “Women’s Work?”

Huh. Whadaya know.

Usually when we go back to old advertisements and articles from before the ’70s, it’s to point out how unhelpfully and casually sexist they often were towards women. You know, the kind of stuff that says “buy this coffee or your husband will beat you!” and “work as hard as possible around the house because it makes you prettier!” and even “women are naturals at computer coding because of the way their brains work!” Wait, what was that last one?

Yup, before the ’80s when the amount of women in computer science-related fields suddenly dropped—presumably, as NPR suggests, due to the way that personal computers and other gadgets were almost exclusively marketed to boys and men—coding was not an unusual field for a working woman to find herself in. Case in point? The above article tweeted out by NYT Contributor Pagan Kennedy the other day.

Kennedy gets the timeline a bit wrong in her tweet, however; “The Computer Girls” was actually an article written in 1967 for  Cosmopolitan Magazine, which had only just rebranded itself as a woman’s publications under the direction of chief editor Helen Gurley Brown two years prior in 1965. And while the write-up does dip into some of that gender essentialist language we tend to consider quaint now, it’s still surprisingly very positive in its depiction of coding:

“It’s just like planning a dinner,” explains Dr. Grace Hopper, now a staff scientist in systems programming for Univac (she helped develop the first digital computer, the Eniac, in 1946.) “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requiers patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.

What she’s talking about is aptitude—the one most important quality a girl needs to become a programmer.

That’s REAL FRICKIN ARMIRAL GRACE MURRAY HOPPER, by the way. Yeah, that one.

Sadly this is pretty indicative of the way that “women’s work” is continuously devalued on its own merit until men enter a field of employment and legitimize it with their presence. A common example: cooking for the family is typically considered a woman’s duty, but an overwhelming amount of 5-star chef are men. There’s even a term for the way that men in woman-dominated fields are promoted at faster rates than their female coworkers—the “glass elevator.”

So could we ever return to a time when women outnumber men in coding? Possibly—it’d probably come at the (literal) cost of a decrease in salary and a noticeable decline in the field’s reputation. Sigh.

(via Twitter)

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