Women In IT

Recently there was a lot of discussion on one particular mailing list about women in IT. Certainly in the United States the number of women in IT versus the number of men is ridiculously small. It does not take a very observant person at an IT conference or in some other type of meeting to ask the question “where are all the women?” The sad part is that it is been going on for so long that few people in the United States seem to notice and some people think that this is “natural”.

One of the reasons why I started in computer science was that I recognized that a lot of it was “pure logic”. You did not need physical strength, outward beauty or even any amount of real coordination to create a program for the computer. All it took was an understanding of the problem and the ability to write down step-by-step the series of commands that the very simple “mind” of the computer could follow.

When I started in computer science I worked for Aetna Life and Casualty. Aetna was an “equal opportunity employer” and a large number (admittedly from a memory that is hazy from time to time) of the programmers and systems administrators for Aetna were women.

After Aetna Life and Casualty I taught at Hartford State Technical College (HSTC), and (again, from a memory hazed by a thirty year absence) we not only had a computer science teaching staff that was populated by over 50% women, but a good number of women students who did excellent in their studies.

HSTC at that time (1977-1980) was often the first time that students actually touched a computer keyboard, and in our two-year degree we took the students from zero knowledge to being able to write a simple compiler, simple database, and simple operating system, as well as knowing several different computer languages.

I should also mention that (as a state school) HSTC was extremely low cost, the tuition being $420 a year, and books costing about $300 a year (in 1977). This was opposed to the over $2000 a year tuition of my own Alma Mater from four years previous. This low tuition gave a chance for students from “blue-collar” families, “second-generation immigrant” families, and others of low to medium income to obtain a college degree. Many times the students in my classes were the first people in their entire family lineage to go to college.

In addition to the normal associates degree program, HSTC had a program called “Women in Technology”, geared toward women who had obtained a college degree, perhaps worked a couple of years, but had then taken the time to raise a family. When these women decided to re-enter the job market they often found their skills obsolete due to the rapid change in technology. We would admit them for a one-year “update”, and they would then be on their way back into the workforce.

I still remember one woman fondly. At 55 she had been married to a member of the armed services for over thirty years. They had travelled from place to place while he rose through the ranks and now they were looking forward to his retirement. She wanted to get a college degree (even a two-year associates degree), and had chosen computer science as her field so she could help earn money after her husband retired.

After three months of working with this woman I was impressed with her poise, maturity, intelligence and deep knowledge on many subjects, and I asked her if she had ever taken college courses before.

“Oh yes”, she said, “every place my husband was stationed I signed up for courses, but I was never able to finish a degree before he was transferred”. I asked if she had the transcripts from the courses, and the next day she brought in two shoe-boxes filled with transcripts, most of which bore the grades of “A” or “B” in the courses she took. I spent two days going over the transcripts and called her into my office.

“As far as I can tell you are two courses away from a BS in Mathematics, two courses away from a BS in Physics, and two courses away from a BS in English Humanities,” I told her. I also told her that if she continued at our school the best she could get after two years was an associates' degree, but if she went to the Board of Higher Education for the State of Connecticut that they might be able to accept her previous courses into a state university, let her take the missing courses, and get a bachelor's degree with only two or three more courses. After that she could apply for a master's program and (in less than two years) get a master's in computer science.

She disappeared for two days, but came back to tell me that she had followed my advice, and about two years later she graduated with honors with an MSCS. Shortly after that her husband transferred for the last time, and they ended up in Arizona where she opened a consulting company.

Another student was a young housewife whose children had entered grade school. She wanted to come to our school “to learn computers”. Everyone in her family told her that she would not make it, did not have the skills or intelligence to do the work. She told me they laughed at her dream.

The first assignment was to input two numbers, add them together, and print them out, all to be done in the language BASIC. The assignment had to be well documented, with a flow chart and good comments. She was the last person to turn in the assignment, and when she did she told me that she had spent twelve hours on the project. I remember thinking to myself “this is bad...she will not make it.”

When I looked at the project, it was a work of art. Every thing was perfect. The flow chart was perfect, the comments were perfect. They showed perfect clarity. A++

The next assignment was more difficult, but it took only six hours. Still perfect. A++

The next assignment was considerably more difficult. Only three hours. Perfect. A++

And this is what she did on all of her assignments, even non-computer oriented assignments.

As she came up onto the stage at graduation and reached for her diploma (straight “A”s, Summa Cum Laude), I stopped her, turned to the audience, and told them that her family had not encouraged her to make this leap. I wanted her experience to be known so that other people would not miss the opportunity to try to reach their goals.

Now I am not a “Pollyanna” on the subject of whether or not women make great programmers, and I know that I have been fortunate to be able to say that the three best supervisors I have ever had were women. I know that stereotyping women to say that “all women make good programmers” is as bad as saying “all women do not make good programmers”.

However, it has been my experience that given the same opportunity, background and education, that women are at least as good at programming and systems administration as men.

Why the shortage of women in programming? This problem does not exist in Malaysia, where (a few years ago) 70 per cent of the people in IT were women. The reason given at the time was that men could get physically demanding jobs at the age of 15, and therefore did not go on to college to get the technical training needed for IT. Women went on to college, got the training, and went into IT.

I do not know why women in various other societies around the world are not more involved with IT, but I do feel that a certification program like the one offered by LPI gives more opportunity to use self-study and other low-cost study methods to get the training and a chance (like the “Woman In Technology” courses offered at HSTC) for women to “update their skills” to enter the IT workforce.

We want the best possible people in IT. To limit those people artificially by limiting acceptance of people of other genders, races and other “diverse” groups (including low income) is unacceptable.

I believe that LPI offers one path to removing those hurdles.