Gendered on-ramps are important to get women into software development

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

A year ago I wrote “Why are women being pushed away from the tech industry?” Women made up 35% of all software developers in 1990, but are only 26% of all software developers now. Women are getting pushed out of the tech industry. There are lots of articles explaining why, and I link to some of them in that earlier essay.

But why did women’s participation in software development peak at the end of the 1980s? I know at least part of the reason. I saw it with my own eyes.

I was in 12th grade during the 1980s. By accident, I signed up for a class about “word processors”. I did not realize what this class was. It was actually a modernized version of typing class, meaning it was for women. I was the only male in the class, I was perhaps the only male who had ever taken the class. For a century before, being a secretary was considered a good job for women. Typing class was considered a woman’s class, because it meant a young woman could learn to be a secretary. If they were not going to college, they could graduate 12th grade and immediately get a job that paid reasonably well.

But in the 1980s the typewriters disappeared, and were replaced by word processors. Most of the word processors allowed us to program macros. So everyone had to learn to write basic macros, meaning everyone had to write basic computer code. Some of these macros could become quite complex, and all the problems of “clean code” versus “spaghetti code” were already there, and provided an important lesson about software maintenance over time.

So here you had an entire class that was all female (except me). The teacher was female, the students were female, and they were engaged in a task that for a century had been regarded as a female task, yet now they were learning the basics of computer programming. And I think many of these women got interested in computer programming because of this class, so they went on to study computer programming.

This is what I mean when I speak of a gendered on-ramp to the tech industry. This was a safe environment where women were encouraged to begin computer programming.

I think this is part of the reason why women’s participation in the computer programming peaked during the 1980s. These classes ceased to exist during the 1990s, so a major on-ramp that allowed women to get into computer programming suddenly vanished. Please note, all the dev bootcamps that now exist in the USA only handle a few thousand people a year, and only some of those people are women. The old secretary classes, which became word processor classes, which became macro classes, those were active in rural towns in Virginia, small farm towns in Iowa, forgotten and lonely towns in Montana. Just in terms of raw numbers, those old secretary classes were a much bigger deal than any current dev bootcamps trend. Grace Hopper can not replace a national trend.

We could separately have a conversation about why coed teaching spaces seem to discourage women from becoming software developers, and what can be done to change that. And perhaps in a century gender relations will be healthier than they are now. But for now, if we want more women to become software developers, we need more uni-sex environments where women are encouraged to learn how to write code. I saw this work very well in the 1980s, and we can bring it back for the 2020s.