Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

5 Girls, 75 Boys: How culture reacts to women in programming.

Earlier this semester, I walked into my intermediate programming class for the first time, eager to learn more about the C++ language and the algorithms I could create with it. I got to class early enough that few other students were there, so I was able to watch my peers filter into the classroom. While I waited for the class to start, I kept track of how many other girls walked in. By the beginning of the class, I had counted five girls. I later found out that the total number of students in that class was 80.

I began to notice this gender ratio pattern during my STEM courses in high school, and it has continued into my undergraduate career; the further I got in my mathematics and science courses, the fewer girls there were. This has especially proven true for my programming classes, and unfortunately, my experiences are not unique.

According to “The Current State of Women in Computer Science,” an article from, the percentage of female computer science majors in the United States dropped from 37 percent to 17.6 percent between the 1984-85 and the 2010-11 school years. During the last 15 years, the percentage of women working in computer science-related fields has dropped from 35 percent to 25 percent, and although more than half of all AP test takers are girls, the ratio of male to female AP computer science test takers is 4-to-1.

This disparity between male and female interest in computer science is staggering, and its effects are far-reaching. A computer science workforce that is overwhelmingly male leads to homogeneous discussions and solutions that could be greatly improved by female voices. Furthermore, an increase in women programmers could easily take care of the increasing need for computer science majors in the workforce.

Increased gender diversity in programming would undoubtedly further academic discussion and technological advances with the creativity and ideas of new minds with different experiences. One way to accomplish this is to make introductory computer science classes mandatory in primary school. By requiring programming education at a young age, we may spark scientific interest in the minds of young girls before they learn deleterious stereotypes that weaken their interest so dramatically.

While studying computer science myself, I have often noticed the paucity of women in my courses. In order to discern why there is such a disparity in gender in my classes, I began to research women’s historical relationship with computer science.

First, I found an article from the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing called “Lovelace & Babbage and the Creation of the 1843 ‘notes’,” which discussed the work of Augusta Ada, a female mathematician in the 1800s now credited as the first computer programmer. In 1843, a mathematician named Charles Babbage asked Ada to translate his ideas for a steam-powered calculating machine into French. What resulted was a set of notes three times the length of Babbage’s original transcript. Ada had added her own notes and suggestions, as she recognized the machine’s potential as a general-purpose machine far better than did Babbage. Ada realized that such a machine could do more than just work with numbers; it could perform operations on symbols according to rules. This realization caused the transition from pure quantitative calculation to multi-purpose computation.

Next, I found “The Women of ENIAC,” another article in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, which details the experiences of the programmers of the ENIAC. In 1946, six highly educated women, Kathleen McNulty, Frances Bilas, Betty Jean Jennings, Elizabeth Snyder, Ruth Lichterman and Marlyn Wescoff, programmed the ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic digital computer successfully made and used. They accomplished this without the help of programming languages, compilers or manuals to help them. Unfortunately, when the ENIAC was unveiled, its programmers remained invisible.

Finally, I found an article on the Yale University website titled “Grace Murray Hopper.” Grace Hopper, a Navy admiral and computer scientist, realized that computers could become much more programmer-friendly, and therefore be useful to a much wider audience, by allowing programmers to write in a language closer to English and then translating this to machine code. In 1949, Hopper and her team created the first compiler, the A-O. She then went forward to create the B-O, also known as FLOW-MATIC, which was a compiler used for business tasks. When she recommended that entire programming languages be written in English words, she was told that this was impossible. Three years later, she published her first paper on compilers, and her idea was finally accepted.

“Not a Man”
So, it is clear women have historically been greatly influential in the field of computer science. However, their numbers are decreasing in the present day. The reason for this lies in how American culture reacted to the accomplishments of these women.

In the time of the ENIAC girls, computing was seen as a feminine occupation. According to “When Women Were Computers,” an article published in Technology and Culture, it was cheaper to hire women to perform mathematical calculations and to become “operators” (now called programmers) than it was to hire men to perform the same work. However, the fact that women performed these jobs allowed both the jobs and the women doing them to be ignored. In the words of Jennifer Light, a professor of science, technology and society at MIT, “occupational feminization in the sciences fostered long-term invisibility.”

Women’s participation in science at this time was seen as a temporary measure. According to a 1943 manager’s guide entitled “You’re Going to Hire Women,” “Women can be trained to do any job you’ve got—but remember ‘a woman is not a man;’ A woman is a substitute—like plastic instead of metal.” So, after the war, the women who had been hired to work as “computers” were advised to go home. Although this did not stop some women from remaining in technological fields, it certainly did not inspire many more women to join them.

This is how computer science became masculinized—the work of women computers and operators was erased, and women’s further interest in the sciences was discouraged.

Unfortunately, these fallacious and historically inaccurate beliefs about women led to the masculinization of computer science. Several studies show the effects of this cycle of belief:

1. As stated in “Anatomy of an Enduring Gender Gap: The Evolution of Women’s Participation in Computer Science,” an article from The Journal of Higher Education, this gendered disparity in socialization has a significant negative effect on women’s participation in STEM fields, including computer science. Also, women’s awareness of computer science as heavily male seriously deters women from studying programming. For example, the cultural myth of the antisocial male hacker is much more discouraging to women than it is to men in terms of pursuing a computer science degree.

2. In 2009, four different studies published as “Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that “the gender difference in interest in computer science is influenced by exposure to environments associated with computer scientists,” concluding that “masculine stereotype[s] [prevent] women’s interest from developing even in environments entirely populated by other women.”

Because the dearth of women in computer science was caused by a cultural misconception, the solution must also be cultural. That is, we must change cultural beliefs about women and programming. To do this, we must give children the opportunity to explore computer science before they have learned sexist stereotypes.

Stage of Life

Many organizations, such as Girls Who Code and Girl Develop It, have begun to advocate for programming education for young girls. However, these groups focus on recruiting high school girls.

Although the groups set fantastic examples for how our country should be inspiring girls to program, their efforts might cause a higher rate of success if they expanded their focus to primary school. According to “Math-Gender Stereotypes in Elementary School Children,” published in Child Development, math-gender stereotypes arise around grades 1 to 2. It is therefore imperative that young girls be allowed to explore their relationship with computer science around this stage of life.

The implementation of programming education in primary school could take many forms, but one way to ensure the appropriateness of subject matter based on age may be to begin with visual programming languages around ages 6 to 7 and then to transition to textual programming languages around fourth grade.

The existence of visual programming languages (VPLs) such as Scratch, Squeak Etoys and Allice, whose purpose is to make programming understandable for beginners, shows that even text is inessential for learning the basics of programming. These VPLs allow users to manipulate elements of a program graphically instead of using textual commands. For example, they may write commands by moving blocks around on a screen. These languages possess many features that make them developmentally appropriate for children.

A 2013 study called “Problem solving by 5–6 years old kindergarten children in a computer programming environment: A case study,” concentrating on the ability of 5 to 6 year olds to use visual programming languages, “supports the view that children enjoyed the engaging learning activities and had opportunities to develop mathematical concepts, problem-solving and social skills.”

A study conducted in Japan titled “Programming Education for Primary Schoolchildren Using a Textual Programming Language” concluded that textual programming languages (TPLs) are appropriate as early as fourth grade. A switch to more formal programming languages would be appropriate for children of this age.

Requiring computer science classes in primary school, specifically around ages 6 to 7, may prove highly effective in increasing female participation in programming later in life. Implementing these simple, developmentally appropriate courses would help girls to develop interest in computer science at the same moment that they are beginning to understand gender-math stereotypes, possibly negating their harmful effects.

This change in understanding of their abilities would help to get girls whose talent might have been obscured by sexism into programming, which, in turn, will guarantee a supply of computer science students that the workforce currently needs, as well as ensuring that that workforce grows in diversity and creativity.

Anna Smith is a sophomore computer science major at Penn State Harrisburg.


Get Coding

Got a girl who wants to learn to code? Check out these local opportunities.

Penn State Harrisburg
STEM Summer Enrichment Program
Set for June 11 to 22, this intense summer camp for high school students will include a programming/coding option. Email for more information. The application deadline for the free program is Feb. 18.

Coder Kids Meetup in Camp Hill
The major focus is on learning and exploring computer science and programming through play. Beginners use Scratch 2.0 from MIT. Advanced students use JavaScript, HTML, CSS and more. Taught by volunteers, the program is free. Contact them at

Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church
Girls Who Code Club
This is a free programming club for girls, ages 10 to 17, to build computer literacy and problem solving and communication skills. Girls learn how to program their own games and websites and learn about career opportunities in computer programming and information technology. Participants are encouraged to bring their laptops, although a laptop is provided for girls who do not have one. The club meets weekly on Mondays from 6 to 7:30 pm. Register at

Harrisburg University
Summer Exploration Camp
Web App Course
Harrisburg University offered a programming course in apps during its summer 2017 session. Contact for details about the summer 2018 STEM camps.

Whitaker Center
Girls in STEM program
Whitaker Center offers summer discovery courses in a variety of fields intersecting science, technology, engineering and math, including a specific program for girls. Check the website for updates about their summer 2018 offerings.

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