On Wednesday, Oct.1, the New York Times published an interesting piece by Nick Bilton that introduced us to Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.
A recurring theme of the book has to do with how the women in technology and their contributions to computer science have been dismissed or forgotten. According to Mr. Isaacson, it has to do with how the creation myth seeks to make heroes out of individuals, rather than the group. And when the contribution of the collective is ignored, he says, it is usually a man who gets the credit.
Bilton writes that, “The exclusion of these women has not only reinforced stereotypes about women and technology, but has arguably had a self-fulfilling effect. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women. By 2010, that number had fallen by half to 18 percent. Now just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they plan to major in computer science.”
When I was a programmer back in the 1980s it seemed like computer science was a great option for women because it was so new that it lacked the male-dominated culture that was already entrenched in so many other fields. These were the early days of automation and we were custom-coding applications at the time to move companies off of their old, manual bookkeeping systems, which meant writing code for everything from accounts payable to online inventory systems. I actually wrote the first accounts receivable program for Dale Carnegie and Associates in Garden City, NY. We worked hard and had a lot of fun.
So it is troubling to me to see such a small percentage of women pursuing computer science these days. I live and work in Silicon Valley so I have a personal interest in technology and in seeing women thrive in their careers here. I also get to ask the people I work with why there seems to be such a big decline in the number of women taking computer science in school. And the answer I routinely hear is the same, “they are not interested in it.” When I ask why, the young men that I know say they aren’t sure.
I have always believed that the technical opportunities were here for women. And in Silicon Valley most companies operate with a lot of flexibility, which is exactly what women and families need. But at the end of the day, it comes down to a choice. And what I really want to know is why so few women are are choosing to pursue a career in computer science.
It certainly doesn’t help that the New York Times editors decided to publish The Women Tech Forgot in the Fashion and Style section of the paper. That simply reinforces the old stereotype about women being more interested in fashion than anything else.
Where is Jill Abramson when we need her?