In 1967, when Cosmo’s “The Computer Girls” article ran, 11 percent of computer science majors were women. In the late 1970s, the percentage of women in the field approached and exceeded the same figure we are applauding today: 25 percent. The portion of women earning computer science degrees continued to rise steadily, reaching its peak — 37 percent — in 1984. Then, over the next two decades, women left computer science in droves — just as their numbers were increasing steadily across all other science, technology, engineering, and math fields. By 2006, the portion of women in computer science had dropped to 20 percent.
The numbers suggest that women with aptitude are out there; they’re just not choosing computer science. Maybe looking back at the “computer girl” moment can help reverse this trend — both for the companies that nurture this talent and for the young women who are choosing not to code. Programming used to be a field that attracted women, even when society was substantially less friendly to the idea of women pursuing lifelong careers in the sciences. (And, as the Cosmo article illustrates, they had to program with beehive hairdos.)
The era of the stay-at-home wife was also the era of the Cold War’s space race. Judging by descriptions in Thomas J. Misa’s essay collection “Gender Codes; Why Women Are Leaving Computing,” computing environments at NASA were the very definition of an occupational gender divide. The control systems that launched men into space were run by mainframe computers that were run by programming instructions written onto paper coding pads. Rows and rows of “keypunch girls” (women) sat in hot, cramped basement rooms, translating the instructions from the pads onto punched cards. Meanwhile, machine operators (men) waited in cool, spacious rooms above for couriers to deliver the translated code decks they would feed through card readers. “Keypunch girls” had no prospect of advancement; they typically held their jobs for a few years between college graduation and marriage. Think “Mad Men” with a techie spin and no room for Peggy Olson.
At the same time, however, the commercial computer industry was booming. Soon enough, the industry faced a dire shortage in programmers and systems analysts, roles that involved designing programming instructions. Like many industries during World War II, computer science needed manpower, and women counted as manpower.
Undergraduate women began to flock to computer science classes. They found they could sidestep the legions of “keypunch girls” and enter directly into the ranks of programmers and systems analysts. But other factors also encouraged their choice. For example, many academic computer science programs were first housed not in science or engineering divisions, but within liberal arts colleges, where women had made cultural inroads. Women were less likely to consider computer science a real “science” that was off limits to their exploration.