Gender Codes

Lessons from History


The fascination with personal computing in the 1980s widened the audience for popular books on computer programmers and their personalities. Yet, oddly enough, these popular accounts tended to narrow the image of computing. And this image has a man’s face. Programmers at Work (1986) presents 19 interviews with “brilliant programmers,” Out of Their Minds (1995) celebrates the lives and discoveries of 15 great computer scientists, while more recently Beautiful Code (2007) takes the aesthetic pulse of 38 “leading programmers.” These books profile a total of 72 computer scientists; and among them just one woman, Laura Wingerd, a software product manager [1]. Somehow the editors and publishers unaccountably passed over such leading women figures as Jean Bartik, Francis (Betty) Holberton, Jean Sammet, Fran Allen, and Barbara Liskov. (Each of these women have won such notable accolades as the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award, widely acclaimed to be computing’s Nobel Prize, or being named a Fellow of the Computer History Museum.) Given women’s clear presence in the practices, communities, and institutions of computing that are amply documented in this book, why did the public image of computing become so male? Three examples illustrate the workings of media bias and institutional blindness.

Let’s first consider the singular Robert X. Cringely, a journalist and media personality whose magazine ...

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