Sloan Grant to CBI
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Sloan Grant to CBI for “Tripling Women

in Computing (1965-1985)”

In March the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded the Charles Babbage Institute a $115,000 grant to support “Tripling Women’s Participation in Computing (1965-1985).”  This 18-month research effort will examine and help document a critical but little studied period in computing, the years when women flooded into the computing professions.  In the mid-1960s women collected around 12 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., while at the peak in the mid-1980s women collected 37 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees.  Since then, women’s participation rate in computing has dramatically fallen off, and women’s share of computer science bachelor’s degrees is hovering around 15 percent.  Women’s participation in the workforce roughly parallels these educational figures, both on the upswing and the downside.

 

Program officers at the Sloan Foundation have been considering what types of foundation activities might complement the existing efforts to boost women’s participation in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  Persisting concerns about gender imbalances in computing have attracted the attention of the National Science Foundation, the Ada Initiative, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, and the Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee on Women, among other policy and advocacy groups.  “We need a moon shot to propel women into computer science careers,” suggested a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News.1

 

While the decline in women’s participation in computing has deservedly attracted attention, the earlier period in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s is “white space” where little research has been conducted.  We know virtually nothing about the middle-level professional women in computing who were the ones that tripled women’s participation in the dynamic field.  During these years — for reasons that need to be better understood — women found computing to be an attractive and hospitable field.

 

In surveying the scholarly field, the Sloan Foundation located our CBI volume Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing (Wiley / IEEE Computer Society 2010).  With this contact as a catalyst, we at CBI activated our own professional networks.  Our research project will do 30 oral history interviews with women who worked at AT&T/Bell Laboratories, Lockheed-Martin, and IBM.  It is a focused sample that might permit comparative analysis and preliminary understanding of women’s experiences in computing.  In addition we will assess corporate and institutional responses through archival research in CBI materials including recruiting materials from Burroughs and Control Data as well as the institutional records of the Association for Women in Computing and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

Thomas J. Misa

1 Mike Cassidy, “We need a moon shot to propel women into computer science careers,” San Jose Mercury News (1 March 2014); at <www.mercurynews.com/mike-cassidy/ci_25248069/we-need-moon-shot-propel-women-into-computer>.

 


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