The most tragic story of the computer industry is how a field once dominated by women became the domain of men. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just a matter of the latter pushing out the former. To a large extent, men have women to thank for the very existence of their jobs.
Once upon a time, only programmers could interact with computers. It was considered a form of clerical work, like data entry or switchboard operation. Female programmers — known as computer “feeders,” because they fed data into a machine (hence the term “data feed”) — translated flow charts into logic operations, then punched the corresponding machine codes into cards. The tools of the trade were an instruction table and a stencil.
A mathematician at Remington Rand, Grace Hopper recognized that human feeders were a bottleneck in the programming process. Hopper imagined that someday, nontechnical users could communicate directly with machines in English, bypassing the inefficient process of translating commands into cards. Although her employer dismissed the idea, Hopper went ahead and created her own English-like computer language called FLOW-MATIC.
At the same time, Hopper’s colleague Betty Holberton wrote the first automatic programming system — that is, a program that people can use to create or operate other programs. The two women contributed to what became one of the first widely used programming languages, COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).
COBOL obviated the need for human-to-machine translation, a process that in 1959 could require more than $600,000 and two years of effort for just one program. Software became both intelligible and reusable across different machines. Within 10 years, computer-feeding jobs were automated out of existence.
So women created the technology that took their jobs. But this gave rise to demand for all kinds of new tasks, such as developing the software that quickly became a critical component of every business sector, from banking to inventory control. Hopper’s vision of humans conversing with computers also led to tools such as Excel and Quickbooks, which provide accessible interfaces that translate users’ requests into code.
When people say that women are insufficiently represented in the computer industry, perhaps they’re defining it too narrowly. In a sense, everyone who uses a computer today — a management consultant armed with Microsoft Access, a teenager using Snapchat — is doing what the early programmers once did. Today’s database software is so far removed from the underlying computations that we don’t think of users as coders at all.
In other words, women aren’t passive victims who were pushed out of the industry. They’re pioneers. Thanks to their efforts, the industry grew to the point where professions could become highly specialized. Hopper’s work on COBOL and software compilers so successfully democratized the field of computer programming that most computer tasks today involve no programming.
Computer feeders won’t be the only casualty of software automation. Already, app developers do the bulk of their work through user interfaces that allow them to simply drag and drop the desired components. The industry constantly redefines how humans communicate with machines and what it means to be a programmer. A decade from now, it’s quite possible that the software engineers we revere will be rendered as irrelevant as the feeders of the 1950s.
Ou is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access, a financial technology company in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.