NPR Tells The Other Story Of Women In Tech

We’re all used to hearing about women, or rather, the lack of, in the technology industry. But as NPR’s Planet Money, points out, things weren’t always that way: back at the dawn of the IT age, women were a major player in the computer science field. The question is: what happened in 1984?

According to NPR’s excellent graph of applied women majors by field, the percentage of women was rising in lockstep with other college majors, right up until 1984, when the numbers flatten off, and then nosedived, back down to the below 20 per cent levels seen today.

NPR’s answer isn’t necessarily one you’d expect: it’s that starting in 1984, high-schoolers who wanted to go into computer science programs had to have had access to a computer at home — something that was far more likely for the boys of the day, thanks to the way that home computers were marketed at the time, as a pursuit exclusively for boys. As such, when computers entered the home, it was as a male-oriented gaming machine — something that hasn’t changed since.

The result is that as a completely unintended consequence of how a new toy was marketed, an entire generation of girls was subtly disadvantaged when it came to applying for a computer science programme — and, moreover, less inclined to apply in the first place. The full radio story is only 17 minutes, and is definitely worth a listen, if nothing else then as an excellent example of the law of unintended consequences. [NPR]