When did computer science become popular?

Women once ruled computer science - then money was involved

Did you know that programming was a woman's business in the beginning? From today's perspective, this is almost unimaginable: Hardly any other industry has such a low proportion of women as IT. An analysis by the US website Axios showed in 2017 that even Wall Street, which is not exactly known for equality, now has a significantly higher proportion of women than Silicon Valley, the cradle of the tech industry. While 48.4 percent of the workforce at large banks are women, only 33.2 percent of the employees at companies such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon and the like are women. In management positions, the proportion of women in Wall Street is again 25.5 percent, in Silicon Valley 24.8 percent.

It was not always the case that so few women pursue their careers: If you look at photos from the 40s, 50s or 60s at companies like IBM, you will mostly find women who worked as programmers.

Programmers as modern secretaries

To understand this, you need an excursion into the history of computer science: The beginnings of computers as we know them today can be found as early as the Second World War. Women were particularly popular for the job, as men were mostly called up. However, it should be noted that programming did not enjoy the reputation it has today. For many, the job was more like a more modern version of a secretary.

The first electronic computers were mainly used for war purposes. An example is provided by the US computer "ENIAC" which was used to calculate ballistic tables. It was programmed by six women.

New science

In later years computer science grew, especially when compared to other sciences, to become a popular career path for many women. Unlike in other industries, the fact that computer science was still relatively new meant that after the war there were hardly any men who had returned to displace it again. It was three African American mathematicians who made John Glenn's orbit around the earth in a spaceship possible in 1962 through their calculations.

Women like Grace Hopper created algorithms that made the first computers possible. Programs by developers such as Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton made it possible for the first man to land on the moon. "It's the time of the computer girls," wrote the "Cosmopolitan" magazine in 1967. IBM, too, primarily advertised female programmers.

The sudden fall

In 1983, 37 percent of all IT students in the United States were female, according to the US National Science Foundation. Until then, the number of women aiming to study in the field had grown steadily and faster than men. Then there was a sudden change, a sustained downward spiral followed. Today, US-far less than 20 percent of all computer science graduates are female. What became of women in the IT industry?

Search for clues

There is no clear explanation for the phenomenon, but one answer could be the rise of personal computers (PCs). Just as it was starting to become popular, female involvement in computer science declined. The common denominator that could link these two developments is video games. The first PCs could do very little and often only offered very simple processes, such as text editing, in addition to games such as Pong. Nevertheless, they enjoyed great popularity: Now it was finally clear that there was a lot of money to be made in computer science.

PCs were the perfect consoles for the still very young games industry. With the video game Crash in the 1980s, she experienced the greatest crisis in her history. Arcade machines in amusement arcades were still intended for the whole family, but with the rise of video games as a home occupation, a new target group was sought. These were believed to be found in young men and boys. Games were advertised - and developed - primarily as toys for them.

Video games by men for men

As pop culture critic and feminist Anita Sarkeesian explains in the STANDARD interview, this had an impact on the games that were released, such as the main characters, story and marketing. When women featured in advertisements, they were often just the disruptive factor preventing young men from consuming their games.

That had an effect: Hundreds of interviews conducted by researcher Jane Margolis with computer science students in the 1990s showed that families were more likely to buy computers for sons than daughters. At the same time, the PC created the beginnings of nerd culture. Films like "Revenge of the Nerds" show young men who try their technical knowledge to win the favor of female love interests. So being nerdy was initially a purely male domain.

Girls without PCs

The US National Public Radio illustrates the resulting development with the help of today's computer science professor Patricia Ordóñez. She was particularly gifted in mathematics during her school days. That is why she decided to study computer science at the university - initially with moderate success, because many of her male colleagues knew basic information because they had grown up with PCs.

Ordóñez believed they were in the same class as geniuses - but, as men themselves say today, they only had the advantage of having their own computer. For the first time, she herself received a below-average grade and therefore decided to study foreign languages ​​instead. Only years later did she catch up on her training in computer science.

And Austria?

There has never been a high proportion of women in the academic field in Austria, says Gabriele Anderst-Kotsis, head of the institute at the Johannes Kepler University (JKU) in Linz to STANDARD. This is mainly due to the fact that computer science is a very young discipline. "The first professors weren't computer scientists," says Anderst-Kotsis. However, the number of female computer science students has increased over the years. Today, the number of female computer science students at the JKU is around 20 percent.

However, there is a so-called "leaky pipeline" - the higher the qualification, the lower the proportion of women. According to Anderst-Kotsis, this is probably due to the biographies of women. "At some point in the time between Bachelor and Master, you often want to start a family. Women are still falling out more often," says the professor. It is also helpful for a higher proportion of women if there are more female professors in the teaching staff. (Muzayen Al-Youssef, 7.3.2019)