[Marxism] Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Mon Aug 21 07:41:38 MDT 2017

We should keep in mind that computer programming in its early days was a much more women-friendly field than it is nowadays.

I was reminded of this by the passing of Jean Sammet in June. (See her NY Times obit at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/04/technology/obituary-jean-sammet-software-designer-cobol.html)

That  obit was a reminder to me that in the early days of computing, the programming world was very much a woman’s world. Most of the early programmers were women, like Sammet and Admiral Grace Hopper, under whom Sammet had worked when developing COBOL. That was because during the Second World War, defense labs around the country hired young women who were either math or science graduates to work as computers. In those days, a computer was a human being whose job it was to crank out complex calculations for things like artillery tables. That sort of work required people who were proficient in math and who could put up with the tedium of doing complex and laborious calculations. Since most of the male math or science graduates were in the service at that time, young women were hired to do this work. When the first electronic digital computers were built, some of these young women were redeployed to write programs for the newfangled machines. So most of the early programmers were women.

Back in the early days of computer programming, it was common for scientists and engineers to look down upon the field as glorified clerical work. The profession back then was not very prestigious and the pay was not terribly high. By the late 1960's, there was a push to re-conceptualize programming as an engineering discipline - software engineering, and to redesignate programmers as "software engineers." Margaret Hamilton, who had headed the software development group for Project Apollo (her group wrote the software that enabled men to land on the moon), was one of the leaders of that effort. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Hamilton_(scientist))

I have at home a volume of the papers from the  NATO Software Engineering Conferences of 1968 and 1969. Those two conferences helped to gain general acceptance for use of the term software engineering. Curiously enough, I have not been able to find any mention of Margaret Hamilton in those papers. Then again, most of those papers were written by male academics.

One consequence of the reconceptualization of programming as an engineering discipline was an increase in its prestige and status, thus making a field that was seen as eminently suitable for men, who now flocked into the field. By the late 1970's/early 1980's, most universities now had computer science departments and were now offering degree programs in computer science. Most of the computer science students were men. Despite efforts to encourage female students to study computer science, female enrollments for computer science degrees have been stagnant for many years.

Jim Farmelant
Learn or Review Basic Math

---------- Original Message ----------
From: "Louis N. Proyect via Marxism" <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
Subject: [Marxism] Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem
Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2017 12:27:17 -0400

(Ellen Ullman's 1997 book "Close to the Machine" was really good. She
started out as a Cobol programmer just like me back when a college
degree was all you needed. I should have written something like this
long ago but it would take time away from film reviews, critique of
the Brenner thesis and a hundred other topics.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 20 2017
Ellen Ullman’s New Book Tackles Tech’s Woman Problem

A Personal History of Technology
By Ellen Ullman
Illustrated. 306 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27

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