Growing role of AI in our lives is ‘too important to leave to men’

I must not have got the memo, because as a young lecturer in computer science at the University of Southampton in 1985 I was unaware that “women didn’t do computing”.

Southampton had always recruited a healthy number of women to study computing in our fledgling department, and a quarter of the staff were women, but the student lists for the new academic year showed that quite suddenly, or so it appeared, we’d achieved the unenviable record of having no female students in that year’s intake.

Many women made important contributions to computing in its early decades, figures such as Karen Spärck Jones in Britain or Grace Hopper in the US, among many others who worked in the vital field of cryptography during the Second World War or, later, on the enormous challenges of the space race. But it had become clear that by the mid-1980s something fundamental had changed.

We found that UK university admission figures revealed that the number of girls studying computing had fallen dramatically compared to the number of boys: from 25% percent in 1978 to just 10% in 1985. This trend has never been reversed in the years since, at least in the developed world, and we live with the consequences today.

What happened in the mid-1980s that caused this turning point? I contend that one of the main reasons was the arrival of personal computers into the mainstream – the first IBM PCs but also computers from companies such as Sinclair, Commodore, and Amstrad: home computers that were a world away from those used in the specialist worlds of science and engineering, and which were marketed from the very beginning as “toys for boys”.

There was very little you could do with PCs in those days other than programme them to play games. The British government had, with the best of intentions, backed a programme to put a PC into every secondary school, but without providing for the necessary teacher training. This meant that the only people who used them were the self-taught PC programmers – mostly boys whose father had bought a PC at home. This only served to reinforce the stereotype that “girls don’t code”, a spurious claim that still reverberates today and which has directly led to the male-dominated, “tech-bro” computing industry with an entrenched, unequal gender balance in which the sort of views heard from James Damore, the Google staffer fired for his “Google memo” recently, are common.

Different culture, different…

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