A Mind for Machines: History of Women in Tech

How have women fared in the tech sector throughout history?

Rosemary Cooper, Global Information Systems – Governance Risk and Compliance Manager at Sonic Healthcare, Cooper joins us to discuss gender diversity and discrimination within the technology sector.

How have women fared in the tech sector throughout history? Dr Rosemary Cooper, Global Information Systems – Governance Risk and Compliance Manager at Sonic Healthcare, sits down with Blair to discuss the ups, downs, diversity and discrimination that female engineers and computing geniuses have faced over the years – and are still facing.

Pre-1970s, a lot of the computing and engineering roles were actually held by women. Shortly after, it massively flipped on its head and became a completely male-dominated industry. What happened?

With my background in the health sector, we tend to have a fairly large proportion of females. So when I came over to the IT side, it was one of the things that really struck me: where are all the women? There’s certainly not a lot of women in the more senior roles in the IT sector, and that was a little bit surprising to me, so I took a bit of an interest into why that might be true.

Women make up about 25% of the workforce in the IT sector compared to being in the majority pre-1970s. While there’s been an increase recently, it’s really not a significant one. Even if we look at it from 2017 to 2022, you’re not seeing exponential growth.

There were quite a few things that happened socioeconomically and globally around why women were in the IT sector back then and why they’re not doing it now. We know that in the period from around the 1930s and 1940s, when people were first starting to understand computing, the majority of the workforce were women.

There’s been movies about these periods, The Imitation Game, for example, around the Colossus computer that did most of the code-breaking for the war. A lot of people don’t realise that 95% of the people who worked on that project were, in fact, women. Those women came from middle-class backgrounds, and they were given these opportunities largely because men were going off to war. So, as with other industries, women came to fill the hole.

Women were particularly good at it because they were methodical; they have great attention to detail. What they found was women were actually doing a great job and were solving a lot of these problems that others couldn’t solve. Sadly, though, when you see things like The Imitation Game, it seemed to all be about Alan Turing – one man who did this great thing. But behind that one man were lots and lots of women who were actually doing all the grunt work and the coding behind the scenes. Even IBM’s ENIAC computer that was built in 1945 should have been attributed to women.

So why did they start leaving the industry?

Well, for many reasons. The war ended, which meant women left the workforce to make way for men to return to it. Women were also not recognised for the work they did. In fact, it wasn’t made public until the 1980s that the ENIAC Six were actually the women who programmed those computers. Sadly, they were pushed out as men returned.

There were also social rules around what should happen when a woman marries – they had to leave work and become homemakers. So there wasn’t just one thing that really happened. There were a number of factors that compounded and eventually we saw women drifting out of the industry and dropping to the lower numbers we see today.

Do you think that now, just as then, there remains this discriminative factor where if a woman leaves to start a family and then decides to return to the workforce, it can be very difficult to come back into the work environment, especially in terms of the new skills they will need to acquire?

Yes, and things change so quickly. So if you’re not up to date, if you’re only able to do what you were doing three years ago, then things will be completely different now.

I think what’s never really thought about in tech is the gender diversity. I read the other day that Microsoft has done their first sexual harassment and gender report for 47 years – that’s shocking. A company as big as Microsoft has never even looked at what their gender diversity looks like inside, and they were finding shocking things like there were 781 sexual-harassment cases and gender-discrimination claims made between 2019 to 2021, and 54% of the women who work there said there’s definitely a gender-bias problem that results in unequal pay and a complete lack of support.

These are the sort of things that are coming out of one of the biggest employers in tech – and that’s a big problem.

In the industry generally, this is a known problem. We understand there is value to be had in diversity. For this particular lens, we are looking at the diversity of men and women in technology and security. But one of the things which is often not done very well is clarifying: what are the actionable steps that an organisation can take when they recognise they have a gender-inequality problem?

I think people are talking about it, but not really doing much about it. If you look at other areas of STEM, they’ve been quite active in trying to attract females back into those fields from a very early age – mostly by changing curriculums at school and offering a whole lot of opportunities for them to get a taste for STEM-type subjects.

The IT sector needs to look at things and realise they are in the perfect position. Young people are digital natives. Most kids can pick up and work an iPad from the time they are 18 months old these days. So they’re the perfect group to start early with and start planting that seed about how they could make technology a career, rather than it just be a thing they use.

Employers need to look at their job listings, particularly those that are using the big search engines. There’s a lot of bias in the algorithms, and even the wording of some ads can attract or repel certain groups. They need to ask questions like: are we making sure we’re using language in our advertisements that will attract women?

I think one of the silver linings of this very dark cloud is the acceptance of hybrid and remote working. That was something that kept women, I think, out of IT. Now that it’s acceptable to work remotely, that certainly makes the sector more attractive.

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