Computer Programming - Easy like Pot Roast
Today, Google honored the birthday of computer science pioneer Admiral Grace Hopper with a very special doodle. This doodle, and subsequent Google searches initiated by the doodle, had people discussing Admiral Hopper's career and learning new things about the history of computer science and the role of women in that history. Digging around Admiral Hopper's quotes on wikiquote, I found a few of the quotes that I may repeat on any given work day (eg: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission"). While I knew that she spent her early career programming on mainframe computers, I actually didn't know that she was considered to be a co-founder of the COBOL language. Up until as recent as five years ago, many universities still included learning COBOL as one of their required foundation courses.
While all of this encouragement for women in computer science is great and worthy of a separate conversation, what motivated me to write this blog post was the online discussion that stemmed from Admiral Hopper's doodle. In multiple forums, people lamented that Grace Hopper was different because she was successful in a field that was and is dominated by men. This is true that computer science is currently studied mostly by men and there is very slow groth of women in the field, but recently I read an article in the Washington Post that showed how this was not the case in the 1960s. The article harkens back to an old Cosmopolitan magazine feature (concidentally with a quote from Admiral Hopper) that illustrates how computer science was once "women's work." Computer science wasn't a "real" science afterall and required a woman's talent with planning and scheduling tasks - like making a pot roast. More than 50 years ago, in a time when they were rarely considered to be equal to men in any field, women were writing computer programs in record numbers. It wasn't until the mid-1980s, with increased popularity of the personal computer and companies such as IBM and Microsoft, that the current image of the computer programmer was created: anti-social, white, male, detail-oriented, highly educated in math.
During her career, Grace Hopper was purely outstanding as a computer scientist. She isn't well-known and celebrated just because she was a woman maintaining career as a computer programmer, but because her accomplishments exceeded all of her peers and changed the field of computer science. While I believe that Admiral Hopper cherished her place as a role model to women, she was foremost a computer scientist and also just happened to be female. I fully support and encourage the growth of women in computer science, but I think it can be dangerous for female developers to identify themselves primarily by their gender. The 1980s programmer stereotype still exists because it is so widely accepted as who a mainstream developer is, even by women in the field. I believe that the best way to eliminate both the 1960s and 1980s gender roles is to choose to first be a great developer, designer, engineer, and second celebrate the diversity that you bring to the computer science field. When you are great, you are great and not because your gender can organize a pot roast dinner.