NYT on the Secret History of Women in Coding

Posted on Mon 18 February 2019 in Dispatches • 2 min read

The NYT recently ran a wonderfully in-depth story covering the history of women in coding. The issue of note for the article is that in the beginning of computer science the gender balance among programmers was basically equal. In fact, it was seen as one of the most viable careers for women at the time.

And then things began to change, with the most noticeable shift beginning in 1984. So what went wrong?

What Margolis discovered was that the first-year students arriving at Carnegie Mellon with substantial experience were almost all male. They had received much more exposure to computers than girls had; for example, boys were more than twice as likely to have been given one as a gift by their parents. And if parents bought a computer for the family, they most often put it in a son’s room, not a daughter’s. Sons also tended to have what amounted to an “internship” relationship with fathers, working through Basic-language manuals with them, receiving encouragement from them; the same wasn’t true for daughters. “That was a very important part of our findings,” Margolis says. Nearly every female student in computer science at Carnegie Mellon told Margolis that her father had worked with her brother — “and they had to fight their way through to get some attention.”


As programming was shutting its doors to women in academia, a similar transformation was taking place in corporate America. The emergence of what would be called “culture fit” was changing the who, and the why, of the hiring process. Managers began picking coders less on the basis of aptitude and more on how well they fit a personality type: the acerbic, aloof male nerd.

— Clive Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding

These stories break my heart.