A Woman Working with Computers?

By Elena Sherman

A Story of A Technology Trail Blazer

The year was 1952 and I was the ripe age of nine. My father was the Marketing Manager for an Illinois company that made projection screens. The owner of the company just rented one of those "new-fangled computer machines." It was an early IBM 402.

Heathkit The computer became nightly dinner fodder as my dad told us wonderful stories of the amazed factory staff who did their best with this strange beast in their midst. The thinking was that if it was going to keep track of inventory it belonged in the factory. Only no one understood that someone had to know how to tell the machine what to do. The factory workers puzzled over it to no avail and ultimately, they painted a line several feet from it saying no one was allowed to cross the line. I wanted to see it and asked my father to take me. Given my extensive background, (which started at the age of four when I carefully and completely took apart a radio) my father was happy to take me out of school for the day to go and see the amazing machine.

When the day arrived I put on my best dress along with white gloves and my Mary Janes. Off we went. I had already met the guys in the factory and they were delighted with my arrival. First the gloves went and then I was bundled into one of the blue shirts they wore in the factory to keep my dress clean.

Finally, there she was – and I was there with her. I was allowed to cross the painted line and I dove in. The computer had square and rectangular boards that used gizmos like the switchboard operators used to connect callers. I had in previous visits taken several of those apart.

I studied the cardboard templates where each hole was carefully labeled. The objective was to figure out how to use the data and then insert the plugs to make it happen. The plugs were all removable and I had to make sure the metal ends were clean, so when I slid the board back into the computer it would make an electrical connection – the same way the punch cards did.

Foreshadowing the future of technology, it took me longer to get the guys at the factory to agree on what would help them than it took me to design and plug in the program.

Two hours later, I programmed my first wire board. Over the next month I figured out how to do what they wanted done. It was much better than boring old school.

My next big adventure happened in high school with my friend Bobby. His parents bought him a Heathkit that when assembled created a stereo. His parents were hoping this kit would help him with his schoolwork. Bobby was fascinated with my fascination with electronics and I think he just wanted to watch me build his kit.

Bobby and I spent many wonderful hours reading instructions in a whole new language, figuring out how to solder from photos, and putting together many little bits and pieces into a board. It worked. Then we moved on to a Heathkit computer (now there was a fun adventure!). By now I was practically living at his house.

Although I had an electronics aptitude, as a young lady in the 1950s my college career was steered toward a more gender appropriate degree. I began as an Art major before ultimately getting a degree in Latin American Studies.

I didn't let my education get in the way of my calling. I got my first paying job in the world of computers in 1964 as a programmer trainee for an insurance company. In two years I was the manager of the Systems Programming Department. The secretary assigned to me ran screaming that she did not enter the workforce to work for a woman! And since I was a woman, the big shots listened and concluded that I didn't need a secretary anyway.

Despite being a woman, I had no secretarial skills. Fortunately, the secretary of the VP I reported to was a kind woman and did my typing for me. I never did learn to type.

My first home computer was a Kaypro. It was charming, with a tiny screen, a slot for the original floppy discs and lots of vacuum tubes. I joined a Kaypro users group – all men except for me. Over the next three monthly meetings, at least half the wives came to a meeting to check me out to see if their husbands were safe with me around.

I went on to get my pilot's license and join the local chapter of EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association). I loved to fly, but I especially loved the electronics. The combination of my little hands and my ability to know where the various wires went made me useful. I graduated from simply soldering to welding and, once again, wives started to show up to those meetings to see if I was real.

Writing for the Kaypro user group newsletter ultimately led to a job offer from IBM. In 1966 I went to work for them in Chicago. In the early days I was effectively commuting back and forth between Chicago and New York. I always stayed in Room 1012 at the St. Moritz Hotel, but I couldn't eat there. At the time there was a law that allowed restaurants to refuse to seat unescorted women. A woman traveling on business was unheard of.

At IBM I wound up being the last stop for any Fortran problems that occurred worldwide. It was a lot of fun. I'd get core dumps along with careful descriptions of the problem in most any language. Chinese is definitely not intuitive. But the core dumps were the same worldwide. And the problems were solvable.

IBM wasn't ready for me either. At that time they had an incredible number of policies that only applied to women. Their policies assumed that any woman working for the company would hold a clerical position. This gave me the opportunity to be the first woman (or one of the first) to do exotic things – like travel. The policy manual carefully described what sort of clothing was acceptable for traveling. Not wanting to offend anyone, I did my best to fit the IBM look and bought a dark navy blue suit, white shirt, quiet tie and wing tips. More than a few upper level men tried very hard to find a way to get me back into women's clothing, but the policy manuals did them in.

I drove up to Endicott New York because I needed to use their computers during the third shift for testing purposes. When I asked the machine room manager where the ladies room was, he did a great imitation of a chicken that sees a fox. Speechless and with rage, he pulled out a policy manual which clearly said that a woman could not use the restroom alone on second or third shift.

No problem. I told him that my buddy who brought me up here would go with me. Apparently that wasn't good enough because by the time we got back to the machine room, the manager had called security. He listened to what the two security guards had to say and wouldn't let me talk because I was only a woman. When it was all done, the security manager laid into the machine room manager for not accompanying us to make sure that I was safe.

My work at IBM led to an honorary PhD in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University. Eventually we parted ways and I took a position teaching the first computer science program in Illinois. It was in a brand new two-year college north of Chicago. I was not only the sole female professor in the department, but I was also the only professor on staff with a professional background in computers. Ironically, I had replaced a woman who had also worked for IBM and had been one of my teachers in IBM's master's degree program in Texas.

Altogether, this history of two women being the only ones with a computer background upset both the dean and the school president when the department chair moved on. Their policy for appointing department chairs was to grant the position to whoever had the longest tenure as faculty.

When they realized that was me, the fur flew. Following policy, they had to appoint me. This time the department secretary was moved to another position in honor of my appointment. Their thinking was that since I was a woman I was born with clerical skills. I can't file either.

Elena Sherman After many years of being a professor, I am now retired. While I've been increasingly pleased to see women majoring in Computer Science, I saw only two in my Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Fortran classes. Today I spend my time following my nose looking for things to pique my interest. Right now I'm trying to catch up on the current world of drag racing. It reminds of when I got my '51 Hudson Hornet up to 122 mph on a sanctioned drag strip.

Over the years, companies had to make dramatic changes to their Human Resources policies as more and more women began working in what had been strictly male positions.

In my lifetime we've gone from Rosie the Riveter, to Betty Crocker, and to "the Professional Woman". And while I could never seem to make those typewriters work, I would come to master the computer keyboard.

Editor's Note: Some readers have commented that the Kaypro computer was released in the 1980s and doesn't fit with the timeline outlined in Elena's article. Elena had access to an early version that was never sold as a mass market product.
Elena Sherman is a retired professor from William Rainey Harper Junior College in Palatine, Illinois.

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