May 22, 2013

Ullman on Programming

In the NY Times, Ellen Ullman recalls her youth.

I broke into the ranks of computing in the early 1980s, when women were just starting to poke their shoulder pads through crowds of men.

Grace Hopper wore shoulder boards rather than shoulder pads, as naval officers will. While Ullman was working at her first programming job, the president of the ACM was Jean Sammet. Adele Goldberg was about to be the top name on the most important and influential computer science book of the decade, Smalltalk-80. Irene Greif was working on shared calendars, Janet Walker was working on LISP machines. There had always been some women in computing and there had never been a professional effort to systematically exclude women, as there had been in medicine and journalism. I don’t suppose anyone thought twice about sending Quinn Norton to cover Anonymous, but I can remember the storm over Lisa Olsen’s assignment to the Patriots. And I still raise an eyebrow whenever I turn to the Yankees broadcast and hear Suzyn Waldman.

Things today are not right. They haven’t improved as quickly as we wanted or expected. But I’m not sure it helps to render invisible the generations of women who had already made vital contributions to programming.