Once the first generation of personal computers, like the Commodore 64 or the TRS-80, found their way into homes, teenagers were able to play around with them, slowly learning the major concepts of programming in their spare time. By the mid-’80s, some college freshmen were showing up for their first class already proficient as programmers. They were remarkably well prepared for and perhaps even a little jaded about what Computer Science 101 might bring. As it turned out, these students were mostly men, as two academics discovered when they looked into the reasons women’s enrollment was so low.
What Margolis heard from students — and from faculty members, too — was that there was a sense in the classroom that if you hadn’t already been coding obsessively for years, you didn’t belong. The “real programmer” was the one who “had a computer-screen tan from being in front of the monitor all the time,” as Margolis puts it. “The idea was, you just have to love being with a computer all the time, and if you don’t do it 24/7, you’re not a ‘real’ programmer.” The truth is, many of the men themselves didn’t fit this monomaniacal stereotype. But there was a double standard: While it was O.K. for the men to want to engage in various other pursuits, women who expressed the same wish felt judged for not being “hard core” enough. By the second year, many of these women, besieged by doubts, began dropping out of the program. (The same was true for the few black and Latino students who also arrived on campus without teenage programming experience.)
By the ’80s, the early pioneering work done by female programmers had mostly been forgotten. In contrast, Hollywood was putting out precisely the opposite image: Computers were a male domain. In hit movies like “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Weird Science,” “Tron,” “WarGames” and others, the computer nerds were nearly always young white men.
If biology were the reason so few women are in coding, it would be impossible to explain why women were so prominent in the early years of American programming, when the work could be, if anything, far harder than today’s programming. It was an uncharted new field, in which you had to do math in binary and hexadecimal formats, and there were no helpful internet forums, no Google to query, for assistance with your bug. It was just your brain in a jar, solving hellish problems.
Changing the culture at schools is one thing. Most female veterans of code I’ve spoken to say that what is harder is shifting the culture of the industry at large, particularly the reflexive sexism and racism still deeply ingrained in Silicon Valley. Some, like Sue Gardner, sometimes wonder if it’s even ethical for her to encourage young women to go into tech. She fears they’ll pour out of computer-science programs in increasing numbers, arrive at their first coding job excited and thrive early on, but then gradually get beaten down by industry. “The truth is, we can attract more and different people into the field, but they’re just going to hit that wall in midcareer, unless we change how things happen higher up,” she says.