A female programmer who worked in tech in the 80s talks about what has changed, and what younger female technologists can do about the sexism that persists.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Compared with farming or carpentry, computer science may be a fairly young field, but women entering tech careers today can still benefit from the wisdom of at least a few generations of women that have come up before them. What did these older generations experience, what has changed, and what wisdom can they offer younger women?

Those the questions tackled in a recent New York Times Sunday Review column by Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer and the author of the memoir Close to the Machine. In it she looks back at her career as female programmer in the early 80s, digging for useful lessons and illuminating comparisons. What does she remember?

In short, some pretty outrageous sexism from a client who stroked her back as she worked to a boss that kept commenting on her “pretty hair.” These tales of sexism in earlier eras of tech may sound outrageous by today’s standards (well, the stroking at least, if not the hair comment) but Ullman feels what young women technologists face today is even worse:

Women today face a new, more virile and virulent sexism. The definition of success has somehow become running your own start-up. And venture capitalists decide who will get funding, who will get a chance for that success. Venture capitalists are all but explicit in their search: they want a couple of guys who can write an app over a weekend.

If hired by start-ups, younger women find themselves sorely underrepresented. One woman told me that in her growing, 24-person company there were four women, which is “considered a good ratio.” And, as always, our ranks thin at the deeper technical levels. We get stalled at marketing and customer support, writing scripts for Web pages. Yet coding, looking into the algorithmic depths, getting close to the machine, is the driver of technology; and technology, in turn, is driving fundamental changes in personal, social and political life.

What’s to be done about the biases of VCs and the direction of women towards undervalued “empathy work?” Ullman addresses this question from the perspective of the individual woman “alone with the anti-woman prejudice: the joke, the leer, the disregard, the invisibility, the inescapable fact that the moment you walk through the door you are seen as lesser, no matter what your credentials.” She writes that,

the prejudice will follow you. What will save you is tacking into the love of the work, into the desire that brought you there in the first place. This creates a suspension of time, opens a spacious room of your own in which you can walk around and consider your response. Staring prejudice in the face imposes a cruel discipline: to structure your anger, to achieve a certain dignity, an angry dignity.

Women 2.0 readers: Does Ullman’s experience and advice resonate with you?

Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.


Photo credit: Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine