SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Dissertations in Progress: Questions of Identity and Embodiment in Computing Communities

Name: Irina Nikiforova

Institutional Affiliation: Georgia Institute of Technology

Email Address:

Paper Type: Dissertation in Progress

Paper Title: Careers and achievements of the first women computer scientists, 1960-1980



Paper Abstract: How well did the first women who sought advancement in computer science by earning Ph.D. degrees realize their aspirations? The relationship between gender and computing only recently received considerable scholarly attention.  Much of research on women in computing focused on making women visible in workplaces (Light, 1999) as well as on addressing issues of underrepresentation of women in computer science and information technology (IT) (Margolis & Fisher, 2001; Cahoon & Aspray, 2006), relationship between gender and computers and information technology (Cooper & Weaver, 2003; Burger, Creamer, & Meszaros, 2007), gendered skills and pathways (Woodfield, 2000) and the influence of culture on careers in IT (Millar, 1998; Misa, 2010). However, the knowledge about achievements and careers of the first women computer scientists is still lacking. Were they able to attain high professional status? How many of them became Matildas (“invisible,” see Rossiter, 1993)?

Argument: Careers and contributions of the first women computer scientists remained largely invisible even when they made technical contributions to advancing the frontiers of computer science. My research traces the careers of the first women computer scientists who earned their Ph.D. degrees in 1960s-1980s. I ask a) How did women enter the computing occupations?; b) What career strategies did they follow?; c) What were the contributions of women scientists? In addition to presenting the information on women computer scientists, I compare their pathways and achievements to those of distinguished male Turing Award winners.  These findings are likely to shed more light on what makes some scientists more honor-worthy and more recognized.

Evidence: Using biographical and bibliometric data about women scientists this paper employs the methods of comparative historical research and statistical analysis.

Contribution to Existing Literature: This research contributes to the history of science and technology by examining the role of gender in scientific and engineering careers. Why women do not enter and/or stay in computer science remains an open question. Historical research has made important contributions to documenting women’s work in science (Rossiter, 1982, 1995; Canel, Oldenziel, & Zachmann, 2000; Misa, 2010) by bringing attention to workplaces, existing stereotypes and social expectation about women’s and men’s “proper” role and work (Hicks, 2010). This paper adds to the existing research by lifting the veil of ambivalence about women’s work and illuminating unique pathways through which women computer scientists fulfilled (and some failed to fulfill) their aspirations in computing during the second half of 20th century.