When I met my first computer it was 1979, I think, and it was love at first punch card.
And earlier, when I was taking high school calculus [which I was not very good at — as soon as they got to “imaginary numbers” I started to lose the plot, but soldiered on valiantly trying to keep up with the more mathematically gifted]… I remember feeling a nerdy affinity for my (male geek) maths teacher because he (like me) was a reader of science fiction. I was an awkward geeky girl and bonded far more easily with adults than with my own age cohort (who were mostly pretty brutal towards odd’uns like me).
One day after class I summoned up my nerve and mentioned to this paragon of mathematical expertise and intelligence that I also liked Sci Fi, and wondered if he had read a book I had recently enjoyed. Little did I know what was coming. The book was by a woman. And his dismissal was immediate, reflexive, without even a half-second’s pause: “No woman has ever written a novel worth reading.”
Maybe a more self-assured young person would have written him off as a pompous oaf. Me, I stumbled out of the room crushed into the dirt, and cried that night. Not because there was any romantic element in the situation (I hadn’t got as far as romance in my emotional development), as because my entire existence (as a reader, a wannabe writer, a budding intellect) had just been casually negated. I never felt the same way about maths again, lost even more interest, felt no ambition to improve my relationship with the calculus curriculum or try to impress someone who, it was clear, would never be impressed by anything any woman achieved. I’d essentially been warned that the math/science/sci-fi (what we now would call STEM) world was a boy’s-only club.
I hope that in these somewhat more enlightened times, this sort of thing is no longer said to girls at an impressionable age. I also hope that my maths teacher got a salutary shock when star sci-fi author “James Tiptree Jr” was revealed to be really Alice B Sheldon… who had published under a male nom de plume to escape just such bigotry.
But where I’m going with this rambling tale is that despite such disappointments and despite my resistance to imaginary numbers, in the beginning of the 80s the nascent software industry was young and flexible and hungry for coders, and I got into programming anyway. Despite Being A Girl, I spent 30 fairly happy years writing code for Big Science. What saddens me today is that the industry has become so fossilised, has succumbed to credentialism and ticket-itis, it no longer understands that an Honours in Linguistics can be just as strong a indicator for being an effective coder, as a Honours in Maths and/or Computer Science.
A hella lot of coding is about language and pattern recognition. Some speciality coding is maths-heavy, true, and we need people with heavy maths backgrounds to do it. But so much coding involves very little maths, and a lot more juggling of pattern and structure (skills very similar to those needed for novel writing, musical composition, and crossword puzzle solving). I remain unsure whether Silicon World maintains its narrow insistence on the maths credentialling path because it can’t get its head out of the slide-rule-wielding 1950's… or whether that narrow insistence persists because it provides a useful filter to screen out the undesirables, that is, women…?