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What Programming's Past Reveals About Today's Gender-Pay Gap
When men enter a female-heavy field, perceptions of women don't improve-perceptions of the job do. "Women are…
How did programming transform from a feminine field into an occupation synonymous with young men wearing hoodies who collect generous salaries for hacking and disrupting things? The story behind the fluctuations in programmers’ salaries and cultural status — as well as those of other professions whose gender composition has shifted over the years — sheds light on how and why women’s work is, across the economy, considered to be less valuable than men’s work. It also provides a rebuttal to the common argument that the gender-pay gap exists because women tend to choose less demanding jobs that pay less.
In the early years of computing, the area that garnered respect was hardware development, which was thought of as manly work. Meanwhile, the work most women performed, programming, lacked prestige. The gender makeup of programmers and the status of the job were mutually reinforcing. Women were hired because programming was considered clerical work, a bit of plug-and-chug labor that merely required women to set into motion preset plans.
Programming was later recognized to involve complex processes of analysis, planning, testing, and debugging. Initially, though, the job was poorly understood. Janet Abbate, a professor of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech, explains in her book Recoding Gender that, in the absence of a concrete grasp on the job, “gender stereotypes partially filled this vacuum, leading many people to downplay the skill level of women’s work and its importance to the computing enterprise.” Notably, where more egalitarian gender roles prevailed, so did the job options available to women in computing. While American and British women were effectively barred from building hardware during the mid-20th century, women in the relatively more equitable Soviet Union helped construct the first digital computer in 1951.