The Geeks & the Girls: Women in Computer Science Rise Again

by Janet Abbate

Clock Icon 56 minute read

The end of the twentieth century witnessed a worldwide trend toward the greater participation of women in science and engineering, and in higher education overall. The only major discipline that bucked this global trend was computing.

Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, 20061

Despite a long history of female accomplishment in computing, women’s participation in academic computer science remains low and may even be declining. Women’s share of U.S. computer science bachelor’s degrees increased from 15 percent in 1966 to a peak of 37 percent in 1984, but these promising gains did not last: by 2008, the share of degrees earned by women fell to 18 percent2. At the master’s degree level, the proportion of women peaked in 2000 at 33 percent and fell to 27 percent by 2008. The percentage of women earning Ph.D.s in computer science has not fallen but remains low, at only 22 percent in 2008.3 Long-term data for the United Kingdom are less available, but recent figures paint a picture that is similar to the U.S. situation, with women receiving 18 percent of undergraduate and 20 percent of postgraduate degrees in computer science in 2010.4

Computer science has one of the lowest proportions of female Ph.D.s of any science, and no other field of science or engineering has shown a net decline in the proportion of women earning bachelor’s degrees since the mid-1980s.5 For faculty, only 17 percent were female at U.S. Ph.D.-granting computer science departments in 2009, and 22 percent were female at UK units in “computer software engineering” or “information technology and systems sciences” in 2004.6 Women are hired at top universities at a much lower rate than their representation in recent Ph.D.s, and they end up disproportionately concentrated in less prestigious community colleges and polytechnics or in insecure adjunct positions.7

Does underrepresentation necessarily imply injustice? One thing is certain: it does not stem from women’s lack of merit. J. McGrath Cohoon and William Aspray’s 2006 review of the most rigorous research to date concludes that women’s underrepresentation in computing cannot be attributed to their lesser “academic fitness” or personal characteristics such as a lack of competitive drive.8 Rather, qualified women seem to be choosing not to go into computer science. But if women’s absence from academic computing is voluntary, why is it a problem? This raises the question of what constitutes a meaningful choice. Surrounded by exaggerated stereotypes about antisocial male nerds, young women may feel that pursuing computer science is incompatible with being an attractive, feminine, or sociable person.9 An even bigger barrier may be the fear that choosing a computer science career means sacrificing family life, since the typical computer science department provides few if any role models of women who successfully balance work and family.10 These are not choices that most men are forced to make. Women who do decide to study computer science face other challenges, discussed below, that make them more likely than men to leave the field. And the loss is great—both for the women who are deprived of the rewards of this intellectual pursuit and for the nations that could benefit from their talents.11

This chapter begins with a brief overview of the rise of computer science as an academic discipline, which is followed by a survey of the literature on women in computing that identifies some of the major barriers they have faced. But rather than viewing women as victims, the remainder of the chapter highlights some of the creative strategies that they have adopted to overcome these obstacles and to challenge stereotypes that favor men. The first set of examples shows how women who had been denied the chance to earn traditional academic credentials were nonetheless able to secure jobs as computer science faculty. The second section focuses on women’s involvement in professional societies such as the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). These societies have provided an environment where women can meet female peers and build professional networks. They also have helped some women gain the visibility and credentials to climb the academic career ladder, especially when their home departments were not supportive. A third strategy has been for women to create their own technical organizations and events. Female-centered professional groups have addressed issues of isolation and discrimination directly, building a sense of community and facilitating career mentoring between senior and junior academics. Collectively, these activities have created new support networks for women, new possibilities for recognition and authority, new chances to define the intellectual content of the field, new opportunities to shape its pedagogy, and—most radically—a chance to reimagine the social norms of computer science in a less masculine way.

The Rise of Academic Computer Science

Computer science encompasses far more than computer programming, although this often provides a student’s first exposure to the field. Computer science includes a substantial body of theory in areas ranging from numerical methods to the nature of intelligence. University researchers initially focused on designing and constructing their own computers, but as the private sector took over production, their attention shifted to exploring the theoretical side of computing. The term computer science is attributed to Louis Fein, a consultant who wrote a widely read 1959 report on the state of computing education in U.S. universities. For Fein, “the computer sciences” encompassed “simulators, computers, automation, language translation, switching theory, information theory, coding theory, cybernetics, decision theory, statistics, operations research, econometrics, psychometrics, management science, linear programming, game theory, automata theory, artificial intelligence, self-organizing machines, adaptive mechanisms, neural psychology, learning machines, and numerical analyses.”12 This expansive list suggests the difficulty of pinning down a discipline whose underlying technologies were changing rapidly and whose applications were encroaching on most of the traditional arts and sciences. Over the years, computer scientists have variously defined their field as the study of computing machines, software tools, problem-solving processes (algorithms), information, various applications, or some combination of these.13

Some of the uncertainty over the nature of computer science stems from the haphazard manner in which it emerged. Computer science as an academic discipline arose fairly quickly in both the United States and United Kingdom and became firmly established within twenty years. Immediately after World War II, the schools that built the first computers—the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cambridge University—began offering seminars and hands-on classes to share knowledge about the new technology with researchers and advanced students.14 With financial support from government and industry, other universities adopted the computer as a research tool and then recruited computing experts (or potential experts) to help their faculty use the machine.15 Theory raced to catch up with practice, and computer science as a discipline emerged as an afterthought. In a typical sequence, a computer was introduced as a service center, and a few seminars and graduate courses were offered. Gradually, some faculty developed research programs around computing and added more courses, and eventually, there would be enough courses to offer degrees in computing within an existing department such as math or engineering. In some cases, the computing group eventually established its own separate department. The first faculty came to academic computer science through various routes: some were hired to run computer centers; some moved over from existing engineering or math departments; some were drawn in from other disciplines that used computers heavily, such as linguistics or chemistry; and some were recruited from industry.

By the early 1960s, universities in the United Kingdom were offering undergraduate degrees that combined computer science with another field, most commonly mathematics. The first bachelor’s degree solely in computing in Britain was offered in 1964.16 In the United States, ACM reported in 1965 that there were “at least 17 colleges” offering undergraduate degrees in computer science, “more than 20” with master’s, and “more than 15” with doctoral programs.17 By 1966, Robert W. Rector, a candidate for ACM president, could assert, “I agree with many that the battle for recognition of the computer sciences as a discipline has been won.”18 After steady growth throughout the 1970s, the number of students majoring in computer science shot upward in the 1980s, when personal computers became widely available. From 1980 to 1985, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science in the United States more than tripled, from 11,213 to 39,121.19 Women played an active part in this vigorous growth, earning more than a third of undergraduate computer science degrees in 1985. So why have their numbers fallen in the decades since?

Gender and Participation in Academic Computer Science

Since the early 1990s, when a decline in women’s participation in both computer science degrees and programming jobs became evident, researchers and concerned practitioners have spent considerable energy trying to explain this troubling trend.20 Most scholars conclude that there are multiple causes. The problem begins as early as childhood, when girls are socialized to avoid stereotypically masculine activities and boys are allowed to dominate computer classes, labs, and clubs in grade school. Young women may feel put off by the popular image of the computer geek—an obsessive, antisocial, hygienically challenged male—and excluded from the largely masculine subculture of computer gaming.21 Women tend to arrive at college with less computing experience than their male peers, which reinforces the perception that they are less adept at computer science than men, and they often lack peer support.

As college students flocked to computer science in the 1980s, departments tried to cut down the numbers to a manageable size. Many schools instituted entry requirements that favored candidates with precollege computer experience. Mandatory first-year courses with daunting workloads became a favored mechanism to weed out students with less ability—but also discouraged many others who simply had less experience or confidence. As a result of these measures, fewer women than men have been admitted to computer science programs, and a higher percentage drop out. Although the gendered effects of these changes were probably unintentional—many programs that imposed these requirements also actively recruited women—they are also unsurprising. An illuminating study by Carnegie Mellon University, home to a top computer science department, shows how academic standards of merit can arbitrarily favor men. CMU had been giving priority in admissions to applicants with programming experience, who were far more likely to be male. But when a committee studied the issue, they discovered that prior programming activity did not predict academic performance in any significant way. Behaviors typical of males, such as joining a computer club or getting a programming job in high school, were simply assumed to indicate excellence.22

Graduate computer science departments can also be unwelcoming for women. Although the blatantly sexist behavior described in Ellen Spertus’s 1991 study “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?” has diminished, more recent studies report that female doctoral students get less respect, mentoring, and help with research, grants, and publications than their male peers.23 In a 2007 report on the status of women scientists at American universities, Donna Nelson argued that many female Ph.D.s have been so alienated during their graduate school years that they refuse to apply for academic posts at research universities.24 Women who pursue an academic career face pressure to do research and publish to gain tenure, and the tenure clock overlaps the period of life when many women wish to begin a family. Accommodations for work-family balance, such as part-time work or stopping the tenure clock for childbirth, are recent introductions and not always offered.

Female computer scientists often suffer from a lack of mentors who can pass on the unwritten rules for gaining resources and status in a particular field or institution. Computer scientists Maria Klawe and Nancy Leveson described in 1995 how women have faced “exclusion from important, informal ‘clubs’ and networks; and difficulty in establishing funding,” in part because they lacked mentors who would connect them with influential people at funding agencies.25 In addition, as Abigail Stewart points out in a 2007 report, “Many smart motivated women have cited isolation and marginalization as reasons for moving out of science and engineering at major research institutions.”26 Isolation is not simply a matter of social discomfort: successful scientific careers depend on collaboration, information sharing, and visibility within the peer group that will validate one’s competence and authority. Many marks of status in science are bestowed at least partly on the basis of name recognition, so that those who are already famous tend to get a disproportionate amount of credit and those who are perceived as outsiders get less than their share.27 Klawe and Leveson note that women in computer science do just as well as men when judged by blind peer review but that bias creeps in when the identity (and thus gender) of the person is known. Women “are not always equally represented in the more subjectively selected positions in our field, such as program committee members, distinguished lecturers, invited and keynote speakers, colloquium speakers, and editorial board members,” and as a consequence, “women often have less visibility than the quality of their research warrants.”28

The research summarized here deals in generalities. Numerous women have found their departments to be supportive or have preferred to work independently and forge their own networks. But those who have felt isolated, unappreciated, or stuck at the bottom have often found creative strategies for changing their fortunes. The following sections describe how some women compensated for early experiences that blocked them from earning traditional academic credentials; coped with work-family conflicts; and overcame a lack of mentoring, peer support, or visibility. In the process, many of them also worked to change the system so that those who followed could find academic computer science more welcoming.

Alternative Paths to Success in Academia

The nontraditional paths to success that I focus on—entering academic jobs without a Ph.D., using professional societies for support and exposure, and creating professional forums for women—are those that were most frequently mentioned in my interviews and seemed to have most significantly affected women’s lives. The examples span a wide time period, from the founding of ACM in the 1950s with several female charter members, through the founding of women’s organizations in the 1970s, to the creation of an entire technical conference for women in computing—the Grace Hopper Celebration—in the 1990s. Notably, many of the later developments occurred in the context of the women’s movement. The first computer science departments arose in parallel with a series of feminist milestones, such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), the U.S. Equal Pay Act (1963), Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act (1964), the founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) (1966), the UK Equal Pay Act (1970), the beginning of Ms. magazine (1971), the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment by both houses of the U.S. Congress (1972) (although the amendment failed to be ratified by the states), and the UK Sex Discrimination Act (1975). The women’s movement led to a surge in women who earned degrees in nontraditional fields, computer science among them.29 Some of the career strategies of women in computer science were informed by feminist theory and politics, and others were not but nonetheless occurred in a context where gender stereotypes were being challenged. Feminism became a resource that was available to women who wanted to transform and not just survive the culture of academic computing.

I do not claim that these examples represent typical experiences or approaches that were taken by women in computer science, nor that women’s actions were always part of a conscious strategy to overcome gender bias. Indeed, a recurring theme in women’s accounts was the improvised nature of their careers. What these examples reveal is how the professional structures and practices of computer science reflected—but could also be used to change—a male-oriented computing culture. These stories also make clear that women often had to put in extra work to earn the same level of opportunity and recognition as their male peers. Women’s accounts illustrate, at the level of personal experience, how individuals were able to carve out paths to success, locating the space for agency in lives constrained by gender roles.

Nontraditional Qualifications: Professors without Ph.D.s

My first degree was English language and literature, and one of the questions I was constantly being asked was, “How can you possibly be teaching computer science in higher education without having a computer science degree?”

—Laurie Keller, 200130

In the early decades of computing, the growing demand for computer staff at universities and the short supply of people with computer science degrees or experience created openings for people without traditional academic qualifications. For women who had never been encouraged to pursue a technical major or a higher degree, this created an unusual second chance to enter the academic “pipeline”—a metaphor that is itself based on the masculine model of an uninterrupted linear progression from secondary school to college, graduate school, and eventually a faculty job.31 After these women got a foot in the door, the challenge was to move up from a temporary job or lower-tier institution, which historically had been dead ends for many aspiring female academics, to a better-paying, more respected, and more secure position.32 Women’s narratives reveal the daunting level of hard work and persistence that this move up often required.

Ten of the women whom I interviewed obtained academic jobs with only a bachelor’s or master’s degree (three earned Ph.D.s later in their careers).33 Most entered the academic workforce between 1965 and 1979, before the upward surge in computer science degrees, and all but one were working in the United Kingdom, where a much smaller percentage of the population earned postgraduate degrees. An additional enabling factor in the UK was the transformation of its university system during this period. In 1969, the Open University was founded and pioneered home-based higher education using televised lectures. It is now the largest university in the United Kingdom. Its distance-learning model placed a premium on staff members who were fluent with information technology. The two interviewees who entered academia in the 1980s without Ph.D.s, Laurie Keller and Karen Shipp, both worked there. A more momentous change came in 1992, when the government offered Britain’s polytechnics—which had always been decidedly lower in status and resources—the opportunity to become regular universities. Thirty-eight of them did so, almost doubling the number of British universities overnight. For women who had been largely shut out of traditional university faculties and relegated to second-class status at polytechnics, the shake-up of the university system provided some new openings.34

Gillian Lovegrove’s story illustrates both the opportunities that women could grasp by venturing outside the traditional university system and the challenges of pursuing a demanding job that was structured for workers who did not have childcare concerns. Lovegrove came from an economically modest background but earned a place at Cambridge University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She stayed on to get a diploma (similar to a master of science) in computing in 1965 and took a teaching job at Portsmouth Polytechnic, which offered her an adequate salary but little opportunity for research. Deciding that she needed to improve her academic credentials, Lovegrove enrolled as a doctoral student at nearby Southampton University in 1968. The faculty at Southampton were supportive, and after her first year, they hired her as a lecturer while continuing to give her substantial time to finish her doctoral research on modular operating systems.

Before Lovegrove could earn her Ph.D., however, her progress was slowed by the birth of her first child. By the time she completed the degree in 1974, she had two children with a third soon to follow. Recalling that it took her two years to make the final revisions to her thesis, Lovegrove described how discouraging it was to measure her progress against the (implicitly male) norm of the researcher who was not juggling work with childcare: “I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t I do it perfectly the first time?” and ‘Why am I so slow submitting these changes?’—instead of seeing it in the perspective of, ‘This is a fantastic achievement because you’ve got two young, small children at home and even to think about finishing your Ph.D. and focusing on that is something very good!’ I didn’t see it like that. I just saw that I really wasn’t being good enough.”35

Lovegrove continued to teach part-time until 1980. When she resumed full-time work as a lecturer, she was caring for three children between the ages of two and nine; her marriage was under strain; and she was struggling to catch up with nine years of change in computer technology. She later recalled the overwhelming stress of this balancing act: “It was a tremendous struggle keeping going on a daily basis.” When she divorced in 1987, she felt both relief at having a stable home life and “this huge need to prove myself” after years of not being able to do her best work. Lovegrove threw herself into her new research on object-oriented computing, but after fifteen years of struggling to manage a difficult family situation along with her work and not publishing as much as she would have liked, she still had a long march up the traditional promotion path from lecturer to senior lecturer and then professor.

The newly elevated polytechnics offered a chance to get on a faster track. In 1992, she applied to two of them, aiming at higher positions as head of department, with the prospect of promotion to professor in a few years: “Much to my amazement, both universities were very interested. . . . I’d never realized that I was that attractive to them.” She joined Staffordshire University in 1992 as head of information systems within the School of Computing and then moved to University of Northumbria as head of the School of Computing and Mathematics and eventually dean. As an administrator, Lovegrove felt that her management approach was enhanced by her own experience of struggle. She noted in our 2001 interview, “I’ve now got eighty-odd [people], each of whom I actually care about and want to gain satisfaction from their work position. . . . If they don’t do as well in something, . . . . I will always try and approach it with, ‘Well, we’re in this situation now, so let’s get out of it. How do we do it? And what do we build for the future?’ Because I have been there.” This management style reflects the standpoint of someone who knows what it is like to fall outside narrowly defined standards of merit.

Lovegrove leapfrogged into a leadership position by moving from a traditional university to a former polytechnic. Jean Bacon’s career illustrates the opposite strategy—using the polytechnics as a stepping stone to the elite ranks at Cambridge. After getting a B.S. in math from the University of London in 1964, Bacon did programming for the General Electric Company for four years. She enjoyed the work but left in 1968 for what she hoped would be a more family-friendly job at nearby Watford Polytechnic: “I started thinking, ‘Well, I should have a family, maybe, and how to fit it in with working where you get a fortnight’s holiday a year?’ And lecturing seemed an attractive proposition from that point of view.”36 Like Lovegrove, Bacon studied for a postgraduate degree part-time while teaching. She earned her master of science at Hatfield Polytechnic, a larger school nearby, and then took a lectureship at Hatfield in 1973. She gave birth to a son three years later and was fortunate to have on-site daycare provided by the polytechnic.

In 1978, Bacon decided to pursue a Ph.D. At this point, she was raising a toddler, working full time as a lecturer, and trying to do doctoral research in whatever time she could spare: “This was very hard in that you didn’t get time off for doing this.” But by the late 1970s, academic computer science had become well established, and Bacon realized she would not be able to compete without a Ph.D.: “The young had started to move through from doing their degrees, and most of them had Ph.D.s, . . . so I thought I should do a Ph.D. It was an obvious thing to catch up.” She chose to do her doctoral research on distributed operating systems, a hot topic in the early 1980s. Working part-time, Bacon managed to complete her degree in three years, in part by cleverly coordinating her research and teaching: “The way I managed to do it was to get students doing alternative designs. . . . I was trying to look at operating systems and their components but not trying to do it all myself. . . . So at least I got them to concede that I could do more [student] project supervision and less lecturing—and so I managed to do the Ph.D. in that way!” After earning her Ph.D. in 1981, Bacon recalled, she persuaded the department to adopt a policy of giving people time off to work on their Ph.D.s, so that others would not have to struggle the way she had. In 1985, she applied for a position at Cambridge University, which was one of the main centers for research in distributed computing. Bacon became the first women hired at Cambridge as a lecturer in computing and eventually rose to the rank of professor.37

Another way that women with nontraditional backgrounds could get a foot in the academic door was to offer needed technical skills and then work their way into a teaching position. Hilary Kahn earned her B.A. in Latin and Greek in 1965, but finding few jobs in the classics, she went on to get a diploma in computer science from the University of Newcastle and then programmed for one year at English Electric. In 1967, she was able to get a job as assistant lecturer at Manchester University—a major center of computer research—by agreeing to provide some necessary programming support to the computer science department: “It was fundamentally very brave of the department to appoint me because why would they appoint a classicist, with one year in industry, one year postgrad diploma? Part of the reason was, I think, because I said I’d done COBOL. . . . Their theory was that I’d work on compilers, which I didn’t fancy; and their particular theory was I’d write a COBOL compiler—which I truly didn’t fancy.”38 After paying her dues as a COBOL programmer and lecturer for several years, she volunteered for another, more appealing service project—writing a logic simulator for the MU-5 computer that the university was building. From this beginning, Kahn built a long and fruitful research career in computer-aided design and information modeling, and she began bringing in outside grants from the Alvey project and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Although she never earned a Ph.D.—university rules prohibited her from supervising Ph.D. students while being a degree candidate herself, and she did not want to give up working with doctoral students—she was nonetheless promoted to professor and later became department chair.

Kahn was able to transform herself from unemployed classicist to computer science professor with an unusual level of support in balancing work and family, both from her husband and colleague, computer scientist Brian Napper, and from their department at Manchester. When they had a child, she recalled, her husband proposed to department head Tom Kilburn that both members of the couple reduce their hours and pay by one-third, so that they could take turns with the childcare: “Tom Kilburn said, ‘Well, are you going to be doing two-thirds of a job?’ And we said, ‘No, no, no, we just realized that because of peculiar time-keeping, we could inconvenience people.’ And he said, ‘No, if you’re actually going to do a full job, then you should be paid a full salary.’ . . . So they allowed us to work flexi-hours, long before flexi-hours were invented.” Structural support for academic scientists with family responsibilities—such as guarantees of flexible hours, reduced teaching loads, or extra time on the tenure clock—is a recent innovation and by no means universal. In the absence of such measures, women’s ability to balance family with a computer science career may still depend on being lucky enough to have an understanding spouse or employer.

Joyce Currie Little provides an American example of several of these strategies—using her industry experience and badly needed technical skills to get into teaching and earning a Ph.D. while working and raising children. Little earned an M.S. in applied math in 1957 while working as a computer programmer in the aviation industry and then taught computer courses at San Diego State. After accompanying her husband to Maryland in 1963, she was hired as a lecturer in statistics and assistant director of the Academic Computer Center at Goucher College—a job that she got because the college was looking for someone familiar with the IBM 1620, which Little had used at Convair. In 1965, she inquired at nearby Baltimore Junior College to see if she could move into a full-time teaching position. They, too, had just obtained an IBM 1620 and eagerly hired her to set up courses using it. Little grasped the opportunity to establish herself academically: she chaired the computer science department, her program received an award for outstanding curriculum from the National Science Foundation, and she headed an ACM committee to develop a computer science curriculum for two-year colleges.

Little also began working on a Ph.D. in 1974 because she knew that an M.S. was no longer enough to advance in academic computer science: “Several other people at ACM had all said, ‘You know, you really should think about getting your degree. . . . If you want to apply for grants, if you want to do a lot of other activities, that degree is more recognized; and if you ever went into a four-year school, that degree is now getting to be more and more required.’” She had to juggle her doctoral work with the demands of a new baby and a full-time job and did not receive the degree until 1984. In 1981, with her Ph.D. research nearing completion, she was able to get a position at Towson University. She became the first chair of its new computer and information sciences department and later a full professor, with research programs in software engineering, systems analysis and design as well as social and ethical aspects of computing.

For these talented and determined women, it was possible to climb from the lower ranks into a secure, research-oriented job at a university—although often only after years of toil in low-status jobs with little time for scholarship. What factors aided them? They sometimes benefited from historical events, such as the transformation of the British university system. A common challenge was balancing work and family, for which women described varying levels of accommodation from employers but little systematic assistance. Finally, their personal stories suggest that encouragement from key individuals—husbands, colleagues, senior administrators—was crucial in helping them overcome the limited expectations that others (or they themselves) had for their success.

Homes away from Home: Professional Societies

I got much more respect away from Berkeley than here. . . . My peer group was outside; my professional colleagues. . . . Professionally, I think being out in the world like that was very good for me.

—Susan Graham, 200239

Several women emphasized their activities in professional computing groups such as the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, and the British Computer Society (BCS). These organizations perform functions that are vital to the discipline: they subsidize and manage the publication of research journals; they organize conferences; they create model curricula; they foster interuniversity and international collaboration; they recognize individual achievement with awards; and they allow computer scientists with similar research interests to form “special interest groups” (U.S.) or “specialist groups” (UK) where they can discuss emerging research areas and build the critical mass to support a journal or conference for the new specialty. Because the societies have always had low barriers to entry and rely on volunteers for most of their activities, anyone who is able and willing to devote the time can participate in significant discipline-building work.

The earliest society, the Association for Computing Machinery, was founded in 1947 “to advance the science, development, construction, and application” of computers.40 Most of the founders were young unknowns. One of them, Harry Goheen, recalled that an aim of the society was to lower status barriers between members: “It was founded by a bunch of people who were ‘outs,’ and I think this was intended to influence it so that a young man going to a meeting of the ACM has a chance to meet anybody in the field that’s interested in his kind of work, and talk with him . . . as a man whose ideas are as important as the established practitioner.”41 This openness applied to women as well. The executive council elected at the first meeting included Mina Rees, then head of the Mathematics Branch at the Office of Naval Research, who became the first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1971. By May 1948, ACM counted at least 27 women among 459 members, including Rees; Grace Murray Hopper; ENIAC veterans Jean Jennings, Ruth Lichterman, Homè S. MacAllister, and Betty Snyder; and Gertrude Blanch and Ida Rhodes of the National Bureau of Standards.42

The other major U.S. organization, the IEEE Computer Society, arose from the engineering community. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) was formed in 1963 from the merger of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE). The AIEE had formed a computing interest group in 1946, as did the IRE in 1951, and these were combined in 1964 to form the IEEE Computer Society.43 The IEEE Computer Society was less academically oriented than ACM and less involved in curriculum development, but it actively promoted research through professional conferences and journals.

ACM and IEEE grew into international organizations, but the British Computer Society (BCS), founded in 1957, provided a more local venue for bringing together university and industry computer experts. BCS was initially very research oriented; one of its main activities was organizing technical lectures for members to attend. In 1958, BCS began publishing the Computer Journal, featuring technical articles by the EDSAC builders among others, and the first BCS conference was held in Cambridge in June 1959. The society became more industry-oriented in the 1980s and 1990s, although it still retains a strong academic component.

Professional societies offered a number of advantages for women. They provided a forum where individuals could gain visibility through public presentations and be judged on their work rather than their institutional affiliation. This gave unknown women from lower-ranked schools or from industry a chance to make their mark and perhaps get a more prestigious academic job. Women could serve on conference program committees, prize committees, editorial boards, and as officers, which gave them real power to shape the field. Society meetings allowed isolated women to meet others in their field and to network with people of both sexes who could offer advice, job leads, or research collaboration. All of this helped women gain the visibility and credentials to climb the academic career ladder.

Women’s personal accounts illustrate how professional societies could nurture neophytes who showed promise but had rough edges due to a lack of guidance. For example, Barbara Liskov had studied with the famous artificial intelligence expert John McCarthy at Stanford University and earned her Ph.D. in 1968, but her advisers gave her no assistance in finding a faculty job, and her only offer came from a small college with a heavy teaching load. She ended up taking a job at the MITRE Corporation doing operating systems research, a field she had begun to feel more interested in than artificial intelligence. In 1971, Liskov prepared a paper on her project for the ACM Symposium on Operating System Principles (SOSP). In writing her first major paper, Liskov was fortunate to be mentored by her boss at MITRE, Judy Clapp: “I’d never got any feedback on technical writing. Judy was the only person who ever did that for me. But she really helped me write that paper by reading it and criticizing it. . . . I submitted this paper to the top systems conference, and it got in. . . . And it was a prize-winner in that conference; it was one of the top papers.”44 As a result, Liskov was able to move quickly from industry to a major academic department: “I gave my talk, and Jerry Saltzer, who was on the faculty here at MIT, was the chair of that session, and as a result I was asked to apply for a faculty position at MIT.” She was hired in 1972 and eventually rose to an endowed professorship there, receiving the top awards from both IEEE and ACM for her work on programming methodologies. Given her obvious talent, one wonders whether Liskov would have received more mentoring and help with career placement from her male graduate school advisors had she been a man. In any case, with some female mentoring she was able to use a professional conference as an alternate entrance to the academic fast track.

Adele Goldberg became active in ACM in 1969 while working on her Ph.D. in information science. She began attending meetings of the Special Interest Group on Computers in Education, where she met one of the members of Alan Kay’s team at Xerox PARC, which was developing the Alto personal computer with a vision of using it for education. Through this connection Goldberg was offered a job at PARC in 1973, where she co-developed the Smalltalk programming language. Goldberg was elected president of ACM in 1984.

Anita Borg earned her Ph.D. in 1981 and then worked for several years at a startup called Auragen, where she was one of the main creators of a cutting-edge fault-tolerant operating system. In 1983, she submitted a paper on her work to SOSP—a move that she described as “the best thing that ever happened to my career.”45 Knowing little about academic writing standards, Borg sent in what she later confessed was “really a terrible little paper,” but instead of rejecting it, the conference organizers offered to mentor her: “I got a letter back . . . saying, ‘Well, we see that the ideas are great, but the paper really needs work, so we’re going to give you a shepherd to help you put together a good paper.’” This assistance was all the more remarkable considering that the conference was highly selective, with eighty-three papers submitted to fill only sixteen slots on the program.46 Sensing a rare opportunity, Borg worked hard on her revision and presentation: “I’d never given a paper before; I’d never even given a talk before; and I gave a stunning paper, a stunning talk, to three hundred of the top people in operating systems. Suddenly I was on the map.”47 When her project at Auragen folded two years later, she was easily able to find work at the well-respected research lab of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Borg later used her ACM connections to launch a research institute on women and technology (discussed below).

In addition to showcasing the role of professional societies, the career paths of Liskov, Goldberg, and Borg illustrate another theme that came up in interviews with women: government or industry research labs as a welcoming alternative to academic employment. Adele Goldberg emphasized how supportive Xerox PARC was; for example, they gave her an Alto computer to use at home while she cared for her baby.48 Susan Bond began her research career in 1965 at the mathematics division of the UK Royal Radar Establishment, where she gained recognition for her work on the ALGOL 68 compiler and eventually rose to become Superintendent of Computing and Software Research. She later discovered that the head of her division, Philip Woodward, had been “actively recruiting women” as an affordable source of high-quality researchers: “he was very keen to build up the division in research, and it was difficult for the Civil Service to attract high-quality graduates at the time because of the salary, and he thought women might be a different pool.”49 Fan Chung Graham, who earned her Ph.D. in computer science in 1974, took her first job as a postdoc at Bell Labs, which she described as “a wonderful experience” and added, “I think maybe it was lucky in a way to go to a university much later, after I’d been through the Labs. You are sort of dodging the usual tenure track process, and all that pressure.”50 At the lab she could focus on research without having to teach—a much-needed relief for a mother of two young children—and after a number of years she was able to move back to the University of Pennsylvania as a tenured full professor. Research labs, in conjunction with professional societies, offered some women a chance to maintain their identity as researchers outside the university, allowing them to re-enter the academic world at a more opportune time.

The British Computer Society offered women and men who had not been able to pursue a traditional university degree a second chance to earn professional credentials. BCS had an ordinary membership that was open to all, but in 1968, it added a professional membership grade, which a BCS president ambitiously described as “comparable to engineering, accountancy and law.”51 Members could qualify for this grade by earning a college degree, by accruing numerous years of professional experience, or by passing a series of difficult exams. The BCS professional membership gained additional importance in 1985, when the UK Engineering Council delegated to BCS the right to grant chartered engineer status to members that it deemed qualified. “Chartered engineer” is an important professional credential in the UK and is sometimes treated as the equivalent of a university degree. Although the BCS certification was probably more important to those working in industry, it offered female academics a way to build their credibility—and in the male-dominated engineering domain. Laurie Keller, who never earned a Ph.D. but became a chartered engineer through the BCS, felt that earning the right to add the initials C.E. to her name not only improved her prospects for promotion at the Open University but also helped counter gender bias: “As a woman, you tend not to be taken quite so seriously, and being able to put the initials after your name says, ‘Yes: I’m somebody to be taken seriously.’”

Some women who already had academic jobs found that professional societies gave them opportunities and support that were lacking in their home institutions. Susan Graham (quoted above) felt that her home department at the University of California at Berkeley, which was dominated by engineers, did not value her work in programming language systems or see it as a serious research area. She used ACM as a platform to help promote her field, participating in the Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN) and serving as the first editor in chief of an important journal on programming languages. For Joyce Currie Little, who had spent many years of her early academic career at a community college, ACM provided different role models: people who had Ph.D.s and encouraged her to get one. One colleague that she met there, Dick Austing, later served on her doctoral committee.

Professional societies also broadened the horizons for women in industrial research labs. Jean Sammet, who held programming jobs at Sperry Rand and Sylvania before joining IBM in 1961, noted that professional societies offered a neutral forum where researchers from competing companies could share ideas and industry researchers could talk to their academic counterparts.52 She founded ACM’s Special Interest Group on Symbolic and Algebraic Manipulation (SIGSAM) in 1965 and organized its first symposium in 1966, fostering collaboration among like-minded researchers while raising her own visibility as an important figure in the field. Fellow IBM researcher Fran Allen was also active in ACM and described such outside activities as a way around the corporate glass ceiling: “That’s why I went and did a lot of things outside. I got very involved outside. And that’s a very common thing for women to do. . . . I was supported inside [IBM], in terms of having big groups to do a lot of nice experimental work, but I knew it wasn’t going to take me anywhere” in terms of becoming a leader in the field.53 Allen became well-known outside of IBM for her research on optimizing compilers, which undoubtedly raised her profile at her home institution: in 1989, she was named the first female IBM fellow, an honor the company bestows on a select few of its top researchers.

Unlike most universities or corporations, professional societies offered women a realistic chance of holding the highest offices. Sammet was elected the first female president of ACM in 1974. She was followed by Adele Goldberg in 1984, Gwen Bell in 1992, Barbara Simons in 1998, Maria Klawe in 2002, and Wendy Hall in 2008.54 The IEEE Computer Society did not elect a female president until 1984, when Martha Sloan took office, but subsequently women regularly served in the top office—Helen M. Wood in 1990, Laurel V. Kaleda in 1994, Doris L. Carver in 1998, Guylaine M. Pollock in 2000, Deborah M. Cooper in 2006, and Susan K. (Kathy) Land in 2009.55 Software entrepreneur Stephanie Shirley had been a founding member of BCS in 1957 and became its first female president in 1989, followed by Wendy Hall in 2003, Rachel Burnett in 2007, and Elizabeth Sparrow in 2009.56 The presence of women in the highest positions gave other women confidence that they could participate as equals in professional organizations. As Susan Graham commented, “When I was still quite junior, Jean Sammet was the president of the ACM, and so there didn’t seem to be any barriers at the top for women in that organization.”

Professional societies could provide an alternate path to advancement for individual women, but there were limits to their overall effect on the gender imbalance in computing. The numbers of women members, office holders, and award winners remained relatively small. ACM, for example, showed little increase in the proportion of women between membership surveys conducted in 1976 (88 percent male, 10 percent female, 2 percent no answer) and 2007 (87 percent male, 13 percent female).57 These low numbers hint at the hidden obstacles that women often faced. Many did not have the luxury of devoting time to unpaid professional activities. Women were disproportionately concentrated at teaching-oriented universities and two-year colleges with high course loads, many were trying to balance work and family, and some were using whatever free time they had to earn an advanced degree. Travel could also be a hardship, especially for women who worked outside North America. Chris Warner, who began teaching computer science at the Open University after earning her master’s in 1975, described how a senior male colleague discouraged her from pursuing a Ph.D.: “He just said, ‘If you want to do that, you’re going to be traveling around Europe and the States. It’s not worthwhile unless you can devote the time to that. And you’ve got a family. Is that your choice—that you want to leave your family in England whilst you do the European circuit of conferences?”58 Warner dropped the idea of pursuing the Ph.D. and chose to go into academic administration instead. One wonders if her colleague would have given the same advice to a man with similar ambitions. Certainly, there was no notion in the 1970s that a computer science conference might provide childcare so that attendees would not have to make such a choice. But although professional groups were no panacea for women’s underrepresentation, they provided some individuals with important opportunities to gain personal recognition and to build communities and journals around their research interests. They also provided a springboard for women to launch their own organizations and events.

A Room of Their Own: Computer Science Forums for Women

[At an ACM conference,] I ran into a friend of mine in the bathroom. We began talking about why there were so few women. Each time someone came in, she joined the conversation. It’s a little bathroom with only two stalls, and we wound up with about eight of the women from the conference crammed in there, talking about it! We said, “You know, we should meet somewhere else.”

—Anita Borg, 200159

Some of the most significant interventions aimed at changing the gendered culture of computer science were pioneered by Anita Borg. An irrepressible spirit who was raised by unconventional parents, Borg was determined to make her professional life fit her personal lifestyle. She majored in computer science at New York University in the late 1960s but did not initially plan to go on for the Ph.D.: “At that time, I was living with a lawyer, and our plan was: we were going to hop in our van with our two big motorcycles, and we were going to move to Oregon. He was going to be a hippie lawyer, and I was going to be a hippie programmer, and we were going to have hippie babies and grow pot in the backyard!” But her professors at NYU urged her to continue her studies in computer science, and after earning her Ph.D. in 1981, she emerged as a star of operating systems research (as described above).

Borg’s first initiative for women was the product of an experience at the ACM Symposium on Operating System Principles (SOSP) in 1987. An ad hoc discussion with several colleagues in the women’s bathroom—the only space at the conference where females were not vastly outnumbered—led them to organize a dinner meeting of most of the women at the conference. At the dinner, Borg collected email addresses and set up a mailing list so that they could keep in touch. Mailing lists may seem mundane today, but in 1987 they were still a new phenomenon. Some computer scientists did not even have externally reachable email addresses, and keeping up with a dispersed virtual community was not something that people took for granted. The now-popular listserv application had only just been introduced in 1986. Borg ran her own list using an experimental email program that she was developing called Mecca.

Because the initial members were women who worked in operating systems research, Borg gave her list the name “Systers.” In Borg’s view, Systers marked the transition from a set of scattered, isolated women in computer science to an actual community with a collective sense of identity. She recalled that “Before Systers existed, there was no community of women in computing. We all existed as individuals. We had a few women that we knew, but there was no community.”60 Many women had no female colleagues at their home institutions and were literally unaware of the existence of other women in the field, beyond the few that they happened to meet at conferences. Being able to share advice and experiences with other women on a regular basis was a radically empowering change. In addition, the list (which is moderated) established an etiquette for interaction that many women found more appealing than the macho and egotistical behavior that some felt characterized other computing forums. As word about Systers spread and female computer scientists in other research areas asked to join, Borg broadened the membership to all technical women in computing.

The current description of Systers’ mission presents an implicit critique of the masculine conventions of much online communication. According to the list’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section, a central part of its mission is to create a welcoming environment, implying that this cannot be taken for granted but must be actively defended by the members: “We are a supportive organization and we are not here to tear each other down. . . . We want to create an atmosphere where women feel free to post their opinions, concerns, problems, and joys to other women in the same situation.”61 Members are urged to be “polite and respectful” and warned that unlike some other discussion forums, angry posts (“flames”) will not be tolerated, and abusive members may be removed by the moderator. Systers has also spawned separate lists for subgroups of its membership, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender women, who wanted their own safe spaces for discussion.

A particularly revealing response to the masculine bias of much online computer science discourse is a Systers list called TechTalk, which was set up for “purely technical topics—ones that don’t have any women-specific aspects.” At first the existence of such a list seems surprising. Why have a list for women that intentionally avoids “women-specific” issues? TechTalk addresses the problem that women often experience other technical lists as hostile: “The list exists because some systers feel that existing technical lists with both men and women participants have an intimidating flavor and have asked for a way for women to ask technical questions in a less antagonistic forum. The usual systers rules about treating each other with respect are strongly honored and enforced on this list.”62 The FAQ for the main systers list also notes, “We allow people to ask for help on purely technical topics . . . because many women feel uncomfortable asking certain types of questions on lists dominated by men.” These comments reveal that what is usually regarded as “purely technical” discussion is actually gendered: the aggressive tone in which many online technical debates are conducted is felt as masculine and alienating by some women who would otherwise be interested in the technical content. Rather than concluding that it is impossible to be both feminine and technical or that women must accept and adopt the aggressive style as inherent in the nature of technical discourse, TechTalk challenges the masculine norm by offering a less confrontational mode as an equally valid alternative.

Building on the success of Systers, Borg decided to bring members of the Systers community together face to face at their own conference. In 1994 she met with her friend Telle Whitney, a chip designer and manager at Actel Computers Ltd who had met Borg in 1986, to discuss how this could be done. For Borg, a crucial strategy for legitimizing a conference that focused on women was to highlight technical rather than social issues. As she and Whitney planned the first conference, they asked, “What kind of a conference could we have where somebody’s boss would pay for them to go—where you could use money that wasn’t out of your own pocket to go to this conference? And we thought: a technical conference.”63

Technical conferences are one of the central practices of computer science. As ACM president David Patterson observed in 2004, “Research conferences are often the most desirable venues for presenting our research results. For academic computer scientists and engineers, preferring conferences over journals [is] common.”64 Positioning women in computing as a research community that is engaged in a sanctioned information-sharing activity would cast them as contributors rather than victims. As Borg noted, having a technical focus would also make it easier to obtain funding. Borg was aware that the external trappings of status would be seen, to some extent, as a measure of the intellectual seriousness of the venture: “I’ve been to lots of get-togethers about women, and it’s always on the cheap. This was not going to be on the cheap. . . . It was going to be as high-class as SOSP or any other really good computer science conference.”65 Initial sponsorship came from the Computer Research Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for academic computer science that had started a women’s committee in 1991, and also from the ACM, the IEEE Computer Society, the National Science Foundation, and several corporations. Borg and Whitney named the meeting the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) to honor that famous pioneer and role model, who had died two years earlier in 1992.

The first conference was planned to accommodate 400 people, but 450 attended; Borg recalled that another 100 had to be turned away. The keynote speaker was Anita Jones, director of Defense Research and Engineering for the U.S. Department of Defense, and attendees flocked to see other notable speakers, including Fran Allen, Ruzena Bajcsy, Susan Graham, Barbara Liskov, Irene Greif of Lotus, and Karen Spärck Jones of Cambridge.66 The success of the first conference led to a second in 1997, and after being held every two or three years for a decade, the event became annual in 2006.67 In addition to women who are based in computer science departments, the conference draws attendees from a variety of engineering, mathematical, and information-oriented disciplines. GHC has inspired smaller regional conferences, including a London Hopper Colloquium in 2004, the Ohio Celebration of Women in Computing in 2005, and subsequent regional events in Indiana, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Ontario. The first overseas conference, GHC India, was launched in 2010.68 Each of these incarnations has provided women a chance to meet, network, and recognize each other’s achievements.

One of Borg’s deepest insights was that a technical conference for women had the potential to expose the prevailing culture of computer science as being masculine rather than gender neutral. Gender has shaped computer science conferences in multiple ways: the sheer numerical domination of males can make women feel visibly “out of place”; social roles that assign women primary responsibility for childcare make conference attendance more difficult; and certain styles of professional interaction are associated with stereotypes of masculinity (aggressive, egotistical) or femininity (cooperative, sharing). By highlighting rather than ignoring these gendered aspects, GHC opened the door to questioning their desirability and proposing alternatives.

Whitney recalled the emotional impact of being surrounded by other women at a technical event: “I had worked in the chip industry my whole professional life, and loved it. . . . But to walk into a room with all these women—I mean, nine times out of ten I’m the only woman in the room, and I have been most of my professional life, and it was just something that was both moving and very different.”69 Such an experience was (and is) unusual. ACM’s membership in 2007 was only 13 percent female. The numbers at mainstream computer science conferences, even in areas with a relatively high proportion of women, have been similarly low. For example, the 2008 ACM Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications conference (one of the few that offered financial support for childcare) had 10 percent female attendance, and there were only 16 percent women among the first authors on the 2007 program of SOSP, the conference at which Anita Borg had begun her community-building efforts.70 Changing these numbers can have qualitative impacts. At least one study has shown that as the proportion of women in a computer science environment increases, women become more confident, and differences in men’s and women’s attitudes toward computer science become less pronounced.71 By creating an event where women are in the majority and are publicly engaged in scientific practice, GHC also works against popular stereotypes to paint an alternative image of computer science as female-friendly and of women as comfortable with technology.72

In 2008, GHC became possibly the first computer science conference to provide free, on-site childcare. This made it more feasible for women with children to attend and also symbolically validated family life as something that can be openly combined with professional work rather than kept invisible, as women used to feel pressured to do. One grateful attendee commented, “It means that I can be my career self and my personal self at the same time and in the same place/space, and that I don’t have to hide either identity!”73

GHC further challenges gendered norms by reshaping the predominant style of professional interaction. Masculine stereotypes of leadership can leave women caught between either adopting that persona or being perceived as weak. Fran Berman, the director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center from 2001 to 2009, noted this dilemma: “I’m the first woman Supercomputer Center director ever, and I have a different leadership style than my colleagues. . . . If people know you’re a reasonably nice person, a team player, they don’t think you’re going to make hard decisions; they don’t think you’re necessarily going to have vision; they don’t think you’re necessarily credible. . . . Because you’re not what people expect a director to look like.”74 She believed, however, that after going through an initial “credibility-establishing phase,” female leaders would be treated equally. Berman emphasized that her job required her to be just as tough and competitive as her male colleagues and that she was not advocating an easier “girl job” for women in computer science. But she did suggest, through her use of metaphor, that women needed models of toughness that they could relate to: “One thing that I think is really true is that what drives me is not necessarily the same as what drives my [male] colleagues. . . . Sometimes I think my colleagues go out there, and their mental image is, ‘Kill the infidels!’ . . . And I always go out there and I think, ‘I must protect my cubs!’”75

Like Berman, Borg hoped to provide alternate models for intellectual authority that would not require women to adopt a male persona. Borg recalled wondering as she planned the first conference, “What would a technical conference that was almost all female be like? Would it be the same? I don’t think so! I think it would be wildly different.” In practice, she found that interactions at GHC were less self-aggrandizing than at other conferences she had attended: “Women are there to share what they’re learning, not to beat their chests and puff up and brag about what they’re doing.” She quoted Ruzena Bajcsy, a featured speaker at the first conference, as marveling, “It’s so amazing! There’s no ego!”76 A 2009 attendee made a similar point, noting how “exhausting” she had found other technical events: “At the typically male-dominated technical conferences I had attended in the past, it required thoughtful, concerted effort to interact with male peers. . . . I felt like I was always ‘on,’ inadvertently focusing on the status dimension,” but at GHC, “I could just be myself.”77

Participating in GHC allows attendees, particularly students, to apply a critical perspective to the dominant mode of interaction in computer science. Borg hoped that by attending GHC and experiencing computer science in a different mode, young women could envision an alternative professional world: “Students learn that there’s an entirely different way of interacting. So even though they go to these other conferences, and they know that it’s rough, they see that it’s not the only way things can go.”78 Although women still have to spend most of their time in the dominant culture, they realize that they do not have to accept it unquestioningly as the only or best way: GHC proves that a masculine style of interaction is not necessary for good science. The consciousness-raising mission of GHC is also reflected in Borg’s and Whitney’s intention that there should be some men among the conference attendees. In Borg’s view, when men are exposed to a female-friendly version of professional behavior, “then they get it, then they understand that it’s different.”79 The implication is that men who “get it” will agree that this new mode of interaction is an improvement—or at least equally valid as the masculine norm.

In terms of content, GHC differs from mainstream conferences in a variety of ways. Only about half of the conference program is devoted to traditional technical presentations. The other sessions offer celebrations of women’s achievements and advice for women at various stages of their careers. GHC also reinterprets the meaning of computer science by emphasizing, more than most conferences, the connections between the technical and the social. A number of studies have indicated that women find computer science more appealing when the theoretical aspects are linked to real-world applications with social utility.80 These connections are made explicit in GHC conference themes such as “We Build a Better World” (2008), “Creating Technology for Social Good” (2009), and “Collaborating across Boundaries” (2010), which both reflect and legitimize women’s greater interest in socially relevant computing. A 2008 survey of GHC attendees found that broadening the meaning of computer science beyond the abstractly technical resonated with them, with 65 percent of respondents rating “sessions featuring the social impact of technology” as “very valuable.”81 The conference format also seems to be effective in encouraging women to stay in the field: the 2008 survey found that 70 percent of respondents reported increased commitment to a technology career, and 88 percent of those who had attended previous GHCs felt that they had already benefited in terms of professional advancement.82

GHC differs from most computer science events in being a general-interest conference that cuts across all research areas and aims to serve a technically diverse group of women. Virtually all of the top-ranked computer science conferences are in specialized areas, and no conference ranking lists have a category for general-interest conferences, making GHC invisible when computer science is seen as simply a collection of specialties.83 Yet this perspective has come under critique. ACM president David A. Patterson wrote an open letter to the ACM community in 2004 decrying the lack of “big idea papers” at conferences, which he attributed in part to their highly specialized nature and low acceptance rates (between 15 and 25 percent). Under these conditions, he argued, rigorous but narrow and intellectually conservative papers would win out in the selection process over bolder but rougher offerings.84 Although the broad scope of GHC’s program is only indirectly related to gender, it could be seen as a fortuitous corrective to the narrowness of mainstream computer culture. A more deliberate intervention is GHC’s inclusive policy toward poster sessions, another staple of technical conferences. GHC’s acceptance rate of 25 percent for panels, papers, and presentations is in line with other conferences, but the acceptance rate for posters is close to 100 percent. As Deanna Kosaraju, vice president of programs, explained, “We want to provide women the opportunity to find their voices. . . . So for posters, we want women to showcase what they are most passionate about, and we have 200 posters in the poster session. I think we provide an opportunity where other conferences fall flat.”85 Broad visions and “big ideas” have some chance of being heard.

The Grace Hopper Celebration illustrates some of the possibilities and limitations of building research communities that embrace a specific identity rather than claiming a stance of neutrality. GHC enacts an alternative culture of computer science that provides both a relief from and an implicit critique of its male-oriented culture. It offers women moral support, visibility, and practical advice on getting ahead in the academic world, and it may foster collaborative research efforts among participants. Yet GHC does not seem yet to have been a catalyst for change in the larger world of computer science conferences, perhaps because it does not fit the disciplinary norms of highly specialized content and formally published proceedings. GHC remains an oasis rather than a model.

Anita Borg followed Systers and GHC with a third initiative in 1997—a research center that focuses on gender and technology. Drawing on her network of professional contacts, she raised funds from various IT corporations to set up what she called the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT). In addition to running Systers and GHC, IWT experimented with involving ordinary women in the design of computer-based applications. This was meant to challenge the notion that technical design is gender neutral. In Borg’s view, technologies cannot fully meet women’s needs or preferences unless women are involved as decision makers. Eventually, IWT’s focus settled more on mentoring and recognizing technical women, both in academia and industry, and expanded internationally to include female computer professionals around the world, including in developing nations. IWT was renamed the Anita Borg Institute after Borg’s untimely death in 2003.

Conclusions

There is little common or stereotypical about the women who make their careers in computing. We are from all walks of life. We are all types of people. Whatever else, we are drawn to the challenges presented by computing, by the thrill of solving problems, by the speed, power, complexity and potential of the machines we create and use.

—Anita Borg, 199486

With determination and ingenuity, a wide range of women have been successful at making computer science their intellectual and professional home. Women’s strategies ranged from individually improvised careers to collective institution building. In the era informed by feminism, their activism went beyond simply trying to make the best of the existing opportunities to challenge the very culture of computer science. Events such as GHC radically reimagined computing, denying any sharp separation of the technical and the social and exposing “neutral” modes of interaction as masculine norms that might be worth changing.

One consistent thread in these narratives, echoing the earlier experiences of software entrepreneurs, has been the importance of social support from spouses, managers, colleagues, and networks of female peers. This reaffirms the value of efforts such as conferences and mentoring programs that broaden and institutionalize women’s support networks. Another familiar theme is the need to support computer scientists’ ability to be parents, through provisions such as on-site childcare and flexible or reduced hours. This implies a revamped notion of achievement that adjusts expectations to the individual’s life situation and does not reduce the respect and rewards for those with families. Such provisions would make professional life easier for women, who still carry the major responsibility for childcare, and would also make it easier for male computer scientists to share more of the joys and burdens of childcare. We have glimpsed how some remarkable women managed to thrive in computer science despite the odds. Perhaps their stories can inspire future initiatives toward gender equity.

Related Reads