Understanding the History of Women in Computer Science

By Liana Loewus — November 10, 2014 2 min read
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There’s been a big push recently to get more girls interested in computer coding. Google announced this summer it was putting $50 million toward the effort. Programs like, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code were created over the last couple years to promote gender diversity in the field.

In addition, the gender gap between men and women majoring in computer science is on the rise, according to a report by Washington-based Change the Equation. Women earned just 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the subject in 2012.

But as National Public Radio recently reported, men haven’t always dominated the computer-science field. In fact, many of the pioneers in computer programming were women. Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, born in 1815, wrote notes about how to load instructions into a computer that were “read by people building the first computer a century later,” said NPR’s Laura Sydell. Six female mathematicians programmed ENIAC, one of the world’s first electronic computers—though men built the hardware and received more recognition. And Grace Hopper “found a way to program computers using words rather than numbers—most notably a program language called COBOL.” (She even appeared on David Letterman’s show in 1986.)

The 1984 Decline

And prior to 1984, the percent of women majoring in computer science was growing more quickly than the percent of men, according to NPR’s Planet Money. That year, it “flattens out, and then it plunges.”

Here’s a graph from NPR showing that effect.

The Planet Money team says this may be in part because in the 1980s, home computers were marketed as toys, and the advertisements were almost exclusively geared toward boys and men.

Movies like “Weird Science” and “Revenge of the Nerds” also popped up during this time, and “started to push women out of this [tech] world—to make them feel not welcome,” according to Caitlin Kenney of Planet Money. Families were more apt to purchase computers for their sons than their daughters, so boys had more practice with computers when they got to college

About half of women who went to school for computer science during this period dropped out, one researcher found.

Whether this is the precise trajectory that led to the drop in women majoring in computer science (and pursuing careers in the field), is unclear. But what does seem clear is that groups, like Girls Who Code, trying to change the cultural narrative that coding is for boys are onto something.

And it also seems clear the girls could benefit from learning about early female coders.

“When they have been written out of the history, you don’t have great role models,” Walter Isaacson, the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, said on NPR. “But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace ... it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.