“Computer Geeks” were once “Computer Girls”

| July 7, 2012 | Comments (0)

Today, the world of computers and computer programming is perceived to be the realm of men. The stereotypical image of a programmer is that of a male geek who stays up all night writing long lines of computer code. According to popular culture, he is anti-social and does not have the slightest idea how deal with women.

But did you know that “computer geeks” were once “computer girls”?

According to historian Nathan Ensmenger, the earliest computer programmers were women. In the 1940s, the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on the ENIAC or the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer which was considered as the world’s first electronic computer. These “ENIAC girls” were the world’s first computer programmers and were responsible for setting up ENIAC to do its computations. In the 1960s and even a few years after, Ensmenger revealed that programming was rife with opportunities for women. Even Cosmopolitan Magazine in an article entitled “The Computer Girls” encouraged their readers to pursue it as a career.

This did not mean, however, that the male computer engineers and managers back then had enlightened attitudes towards women programmers in the workforce. Rather, Ensmenger reveals, that women were hired because software development was likened to typing or any other clerical skill. Male engineers were hired to work on the hardware which was then considered the real “brain work.”

Today, —which is incidentally also the title of Ensmenger’s new book— leading to the masculinization of the computer programming world. Stereotypes (e.g. anti-social traits) continue to be perpetuated along with hiring practices (e.g. a personality profile test slanted towards men) that all make it hard for women to break into the male-dominated world of computer programming. Ensmenger says his work serves not only as a reminder of women’s contributions to programming but also on how to make it more open to them.

Professor Sapna Cheryan, a psychologist at the University of Washington may have found a solution to encourage more women to enter the field of computer science. It has to do with changing the stereotypical perception of what a computer geek is like by changing the stuff it is associated with. Since many women cannot identify with this long-held image of the nerdy, techie, anti-social computer whiz, Cheryan feels that one way to encourage more women to enter the profession is to find a way to “decouple geekiness from its masculinity.”

However, she cautions against totally “eradicating the geek stereotype” which might potentially scare computers scientists of both genders. Cheryan explains: “Rather than eradicating the geek stereotype, we should expand it. The message is more about broadening the image than about turning it on its edge.”

Tags: anti-social, computer, feature, , geeks, , University of Washington,

Category: Career Girl

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