by Sanna Mustelin

When I ask people why they think that there are so few female programmers, many answer that apparently, it is a male dominated job—but it is getting better. There is an assumption that we are progressing towards a more equal society where women can have jobs in technology as well. This assumption, however, is faulty. Women have been programmers from the very beginning.

One of the strongest barriers which keeps women from learning to code today is the internalized fear that they will never be good enough to be a ‘real programmer’. There is an unspoken assumption that masculinity is the natural norm in these spaces, which women, feminine, and gender non-conforming people will have to deal with if they want to be a part of the community. Instead, this masculinity has not always been the norm in programming, as I will explain.

UK: A Woman’s Job

As Jennifer S. Light explains in her article “When Computers Were Women”, in the 1950s and 60s data processing was a feminized job. It was seen as not very demanding and therefore promoted as a suitable job for women. When the profession of the computer programmer first emerged alongside the invention of electronic computers, it was referred to as a women’s job. Many of the people working on calculations for ballistic missiles during the Second World War in Anglo-Saxon countries were also women.

Programmers were not considered geniuses the way they sometimes are today; quite the opposite. The managers who hired women to operate and program computers considered it deskilled work which did not require any higher intellectual ability. Accordingly, the problem with the gender gap in programming is not only that women are marginalized in today’s tech scene; the underlying problem is that women’s work is discursively defined as less valuable. In order to tackle the gender gap in technology, this sexist assumption has to be challenged.

One early example of institutionalized gendering of professions is the UK government reforming their job structures after 1945, explains Mary Hicks (2010). After the Equal Pay Act was introduced, the programmers’ so-called “women’s grades” were excluded from equal pay because they were seen as less skilled. Men working in the same professions were not excluded from equal pay. Instead, their job titles were changed so they could benefit from the new law. This was one of the ways that “the association of women with deskilled, low-paid, and usually dead-ended machine work became institutionalized” (Hicks, 2010, p. 99). Gendering professions thus meant that “[in] some cases, identical work could be considered different in terms of difficulty and importance depending on whether men or women were performing it, or expected to perform it” (Hicks, 2010, p. 100).

US: Visibility in the Media

Some people may have heard that in the United States, the first electronic computer, the ENIAC, was programmed by six women: Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances “Betty” Synder Holberton, Frances Bilas Spence, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. But it is rarely mentioned that there were many other women working in data processing at the time as well.

In press coverage of the official release of the ENIAC in 1946, these six first programmers were not mentioned as pioneers. Erasure in this case meant that they were literally cut out of a picture that was used in the press and later advertisements, showing a man working on the computer in the foreground. As Light explains, the editors’ decisions of what to show in the pictures was shaped by gendered norms of society regarding the female programmers’ roles in the project. There would have been several opportunities for the press to highlight or at least mention the female programmers’ work. Instead, the news focused exclusively on the male engineers of the project, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchley, as well as Herman Goldstine (cf. Light, p.472).

In their perception, the six women who had programmed the computer without an existing manual to follow had merely executed the task (cf. p. 462). The contributions of Adele Goldstine, who trained the other women and wrote the first manual for operating ENIAC, were omitted from the reporting. Light argues that the hierarchy was also shaped around a dichotomy between male “hardware” and female “software” operators, which was reflected in the attention they each got from the press (p. 474). The fact that the women did have an understanding of the machine (the hardware) they worked on was overlooked.

Today: Defining who can code

When your contributions are not a part of the dominant narrative and you cannot see yourself or people like you represented in the media, it becomes hard to imagine yourself doing these things, for example, becoming a programmer. I first considered learning to code when I followed a lot of young queer feminists from my country on Twitter. The more of their blogs I read, the more I was exposed to topics such as nerd culture and technology. At first glance, I had very little to do with these interests. But gradually, some memories started coming back to me.

Growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I loved playing computer games and building websites on the internet. I played games based on popular children’s books like Pettson’s Inventions and Harry Potter. When I was bored, I used to make up games and draw them on a piece of cardboard. In school, I took IT classes in order to learn using HTML, Prolog and Delphi. But then I just stopped and forgot about it for several years.

When I finished school and started thinking about career options, I was told repeatedly that it was way too late now to become a programmer. Young male “prodigies” who had spent hours programming in their dimly-lit basements had long surpassed me, so there was no way I could keep up. Today, especially through my Twitter community, I hear the opposite story: it’s not too late to learn coding. It’s never too late and it just takes a year of training to become a professional web developer. Initiatives like Rails Girls offer very popular absolute beginner’s workshops and promote a more diverse image of programming, which apparently speaks to a lot of women with a background similar to mine. There are resources for learning about mechanisms such as Impostor Syndrome and slowly unlearning, once again, that coding is for boys and that this activity is not for me.

Still, the problem is not solved when one privileged group of women is successfully integrated into the current tech scene. As women continue to drop out of the software profession, the culture left behind shows that women are expected to adjust to the norm, instead of expanding the narrow understanding of ‘real’ programming. People at intersections of discrimination and marginalisation, especially black women, feminine, dis_abled, and queer people are already building and shaping the web. In addition to encouraging more Black women to code, the understanding of which factors are important in technology need to change. If groups like black women are not visible within current tech communities, this is in part because they are hired less frequently. But also because their experiences are not part of dominant narratives about coding and technologies. Unconscious biases about tech and about marginalized identities need to be detected and challenged in order to rewrite our current stories and histories.


  • Hicks, M. (2010). ‘Meritocracy and Feminization in Conflict: Computerization in the British Government’. In: Misa, T. (ed.) Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. 1st ed. [ebook] Wiley.
  • Light, J. (1999). ‘When Computers Were Women’. Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 455-483.

Sanna Mustelin is a writer and activist from Hamburg, Germany. She holds an MA in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Sussex, UK and is currently living in Berlin.

Illustration by Victoria Wang.

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