Software: That's women's work!

Software: That's women's work!

 25 Feb 2019

I have worked in IT, technology and digital companies for over two decades. I was the only female in 100 undergraduates studying computing, and the workplace gender balance has not changed dramatically since then.

As PWC findings show that only 15% of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) workforce are women, falling to 5% at board level.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

After listening to the inspirational Sue Black on the Life Scientific on Radio 4, I discovered that in the early days, women were often assigned software tasks because software was seen as electronic secretarial work.

"It’s not that managers of yore respected women more than they do now," Rose Eveleth writes in Smithsonian magazine. "They simply saw computer programming as an easy job. It was like typing or filing to them and the development of software was less important than the development of hardware. So women wrote software, programmed …"

After the Enigma machines of the 1940s, and before the 1980s personal computing revolution, computers were about the essential stuff we take for granted; train signalling, payroll automation, banking systems, air-traffic control.

Here are a few of the early female programmers who made software, into an engineering discipline.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, women founded some of the first software houses in the UK.

Dina St Johnston quoted in the Computer Journal in 2008: “There was a shortage of processor-oriented people who were happy to go round a steel works in a hard hat.” Dina St Johnston, however, loved it and founded Vaughan Programming Services creating software for the BBC, Unilever, BAA, British Rail and GEC. The company she founded still exists, now as a part of GE.

Stephanie Shirley took a maths degree at night school and founded her software house, Freelance Programmers, from her dining room table in 1962. She wanted to be able to work while raising her family, and was determined to help other women do the same. Shirley only employed female programmers until 1975, when the Equal Opportunities Act meant she had to open up applications to men. Her company, renamed Xansa, was listed on the FTSE-250 and sold software in areas including banking, transport and telecoms

We’ve all heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the lunar landing but maybe not the Apollo Guidance Computer software written by a team at MIT headed up by Margaret Hamilton.

"I began to use the term 'software engineering' to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering," Hamilton told Verne's Jaime Rubio Hancock in an interview. "When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an on going joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline."

So does it matter that today women don’t fill as many technology roles as men? From a diversity and inclusion perspective of course yes, but it also matters if a company wants to find and retain the best talent. At Resource Harbour, we believe that flexibility is a key attribute in any company keen on diversifying their workforce. With a mainly male workforce and all male senior management, introducing flexibility into the workplace can be a cultural challenge.

Resource Harbour works with employers to open up STEM roles to attract talented professionals who have all the skills needed, but may require flexibility of some description to allow them to work.

If we can help your business, contact us at or if you are seeking work, register with us at

#IWD2019 #InternationalWomensDay #WomenInTech #WomenWhoCode #ProfessionalWomen #DiversityAndInclusion


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