Grace Murray Hopper is often referred to as “The Grandmother of Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL)” and is revered as one of the first programmers of a large-scale digital computer (G?rer, 1995). Many other women have given their entire careers and more to the field of computer sciences only to have their contributions ignored or forgotten altogether. This lack of recognition along with other cultural nuances within the field of computer science has hindered the entrance of women into this profession. Consequently, in modern Western society there is a decrease in the number of female innovators entering this fast-growing discipline who have the ability to impact this field in the same way early female scientists did. This paper argues that the overwhelmingly patriarchal culture of the computer science profession has opposed the entrance of women into this field.
To prove this argument, an analysis of the contributions of several early female programmers who have received varying levels of recognition will be explored, along with other obstacles hindering the entrance of women into this profession today, and how this issue is currently being addressed in the United States for future generations. Anyone with an understanding of the early years of computer science would be quick to note that the work done by Grace Murray Hopper, who created the first machine code compiler and a higher level programming language known as the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) setting the foundation for one of the fastest growing technical fields in the world today (G?rer, 2002). However, an argument may be made that as an early innovator in a time when the sciences were even more male dominant than they are currently she may have set the level of expectation for future women in computer science to an unachievable height. For example, during WWII when a group of six women were responsible for the creation of a computer capable of performing ballistics calculations they received very little recognition or attention for their hard work. This computer was known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) and later went on to become one of the marvels of computer science post-WWII. Today the ENIAC is commonly referred to as the first multipurpose digital computer but very little recognition is given to the six female programmers who were responsible for its creation. Sadly, this is exemplified in the IEEE Annals of the History or Computing issue which celebrates the 15 year anniversary of the ENIAC, where there is only a brief mention of the female creators (Light, 1999).
A lack of recognition for women is not strictly limited to the industry of computer science but can also be found in academia. The first woman to receive a Ph.D.
degree in computer science was Sister Mary Kenneth Keller in 1965, she later went on to found the computer science department at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. Keller was an adamant supporter of women pursuing computer science degrees and had one of the earliest visions about the possibility of artificial intelligence (G?rer, 1995). Still to this day she remains seldom mentioned despite being responsible for bringing forth the use of computers as an educational tool outside of computer science and helped develop the BASIC computer language.
The lack of recognition for the contribution of women during the early years of computer science is one of the many obstacles discouraging women from starting a career in this field. A possible explanation for why women’s historical involvement in computer science has been minimally recognized is partially due to that until recently the focus of computer science has been on hardware development instead of programming (Abbate, 2003). The entrance to this particular sub-discipline has largely been limited by a lack of training of the prerequisite skills such as manufacturing and process engineering related to hardware creation. In the early days of programming many of the skills required were learned through physical job experience and in positions typically given to women as they excelled in typing compared to their male counterparts. In today’s world, the culture around computers for young individuals is undoubtedly male orientated.
In just about every area of computer use at home in the United States, male children reported greater computer usage with the exception of word processing which is the only area dominated by females (Abbis, 2008). The usage of computers at a young age has put females at a predisposition to be at odds with computers later on in life and consequently dissuaded them from entering a profession that relies on computing skills or a familiarity with computers. Another study done in New Zealand by Abbiss (2009) shows that at a grade school age there isn’t a strong gap between male and female enrollment in specific computer science related classes across all disciplines, however, there does remain a distinct association with typing and word processing as a feminine profession. As young individuals reach university age the difference between male and female undergraduate students and computer usage becomes much clearer. One study done on the gender gap in information technology (IT) related degrees has shown that there is a growing difference between the number of women in IT-related schooling and the total number of students (Tam & Bassett, 2006). These cultural orientations towards women only associating with word processing and avoiding extensive education within computer science related studies has led to a significant reduction in female participation in professional computer science careers.
While there are still many obstacles against women entering computer science disciplines today, a significant amount of progress has been made in recent years. As a leader in the developed world, the United States has shown significant progress towards the encouragement of women to participate in computer sciences and provided additional support for advancing the careers of women in academia. Schiebinger (2008) has shown that through the adaptation of gendered analysis of scientific research an enhanced level of understanding across all fields of science has been obtained (p.4). This broadening of scientific study acts as a foundation for the necessary inclusion of all genders in science and has encouraged the entrance of women into male dominated fields such as computer sciences. Additionally, several scholarships and grants across the United States have been founded with the understanding that an encouraging atmosphere for the entrance of women into computer science are necessary to bring about change to this male-dominated field.
An effective example of this is the Catalyst Scholarship at Hunter College which not only provides financial support to women entering STEM fields but mentorship and support systems as well (Salmun & Buonaiuto, 2016). This additional attention to women beyond fiscal incentives is the kind of system encouraged by Barr (2017) who has pointed out that the retention of women during their studies and their post-graduation careers has increased with inflating enrollment numbers for computer sciences. The partnership and support of women during their education as a way of giving them a sense of belonging within computer science has been shown to have a positive effect on their retention throughout their studies (Dubow, Farmer, Wu, & Fredrickson, 2013).
Upon graduation, support systems have been set up in order to aid individuals who have reached an upper ceiling in their career path by virtue of being a minority of their field. An example of this is the Athena Project which was founded in 1999 with a specific goal as described by Bebbington (2002) of “improving the retention and advancement of women scientists in higher education employment” (p. 367). Altogether these various scholarships and initiatives have aided the entrance of women to computer science related careers and given them a supportive community that provides a sense of belonging. In conclusion, it is evident that both the industrial and academic aspects of computer science have been predominantly male dominated and orchestrated to benefit overarching patriarchal social structures. Even though it has been proven through numerous examples that females have had important contributions to computer science, they are often underrepresented and unrecognized.
A prime example of how females are disregarded was explored through the analysis of the ENIAC computer system case study. Although some western countries such as the United States are beginning to recognize the gender inequalities that persist in the field of computer science it is important to note that more education and awareness needs to be directed towards this issue. Moving forward, individuals and society as a whole need to put in a constant effort to reshape the culture of computer science in order to encourage the entrance of women in computer science and provide additional support to those who have chosen to embark on a computer science related career path in order to prevent an early departure. Just because an individual belongs to a particular gender their opinion, knowledge, and valid contributions to a particular field of study should not be hindered or limited.