Women Once Ruled the Computer World. When Did Silicon Valley Become Brotopia?
How the tech industry sabotaged itself and its own pipeline of talent.
By February 1, 2018, 1:00 AM PST
…Today, according to a recent study published by Axios, even famously sexist Wall Street employs a higher percentage of women than tech…. At a time when a degree in computer science guarantees a six-figure job offer to any young person with a modest intellect and a willingness to live in the Bay Area, women earn just 17.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science. That percentage has remained flat for a decade.
The tragedy, as I argue in my book, Brotopia, is it didn’t have to be this way. The exclusion of women from technology wasn’t inevitable. The industry, it turns out, sabotaged itself and its own pipeline of female talent.
In tech’s earliest days, programmers looked a lot different from the geeky men we now imagine when we imagine tech workers. In fact, they looked like women. … In 1962, as depicted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, three black women working as NASA mathematicians helped calculate the flight paths that put John Glenn into orbit.
… A 1967 Cosmopolitan article, “The Computer Girls,” let it be known that “a girl ‘senior systems analyst’ gets $20,000—and up!”—equivalent to making roughly $150,000 a year today. The photo of a real-life female IBM engineer, who wore a dress, pearl earrings, and a short bouffant, appeared alongside the piece. “Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming,” Hopper told the magazine….
But just as Cosmo was encouraging a broader selection of women to seek fat paychecks in this new field, men, also in search of highly paid jobs, started pushing women out. In the mid-1960s, System Development Corp., a pioneering software company that’s now part of the consultancy Unisys Corp., enlisted two male psychologists to scout recruits. The psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry, profiled 1,378 programmers, only 186 of whom were women. They used their findings to build a “vocational interest scale” that they believed could predict “satisfaction” and therefore success in the field. Based on their survey, they concluded that people who liked solving puzzles of various sorts, from mathematical to mechanical, made for good programmers. That made sense. Their second conclusion was far more speculative.
Based on data they had gathered from the same sample of mostly male programmers, Cannon and Perry decided that happy software engineers shared one striking characteristic: They “don’t like people.” In their final report they concluded that programmers “dislike activities involving close personal interaction; they are generally more interested in things than in people.” There’s little evidence to suggest that antisocial people are more adept at math or computers. Unfortunately, there’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that if you set out to hire antisocial nerds, you’ll wind up hiring a lot more men than women.
Cannon and Perry’s research was influential at a crucial juncture in the development of the industry. In 1968, a tech recruiter said at a conference that programmers were “often egocentric, slightly neurotic,” and bordered on “limited schizophrenia,” also noting a high “incidence of beards, sandals, and other symptoms of rugged individualism or nonconformity.” Even then, the peculiarity of male programmers was well-known and celebrated; today, the term “neckbeard” is used almost affectionately. There is, of course, no equivalent term of endearment for women.
Cannon and Perry’s work, as well as other personality tests that seem, in retrospect, designed to favor men over women, were used in large companies for decades, helping to create the pop culture trope of the male nerd and ensuring that computers wound up in the boys’ side of the toy aisle. They influenced not just the way companies hired programmers but also who was allowed to become a programmer in the first place.
Funny how over the last 50 years no start up ever tried to challenge this stereotype and make lots of money by doing so.
Adapted from Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang, to be published on Feb. 6 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Emily Chang.