My first real job was writing technical manuals for a software development group which did the impossible: ported a highly-complex, multi-user, multi-CPU operating system from one hardware architecture to another in a little over two years.
The eight-or-so senior programmers - the ones who made the difficult technical tradeoffs and directed everyone else - included two women. In addition, about a third and a quarter of the line programmers were women.
While that sounds about on par for high tech companies today, the diversity figures for companies like Google and Facebook always count non-programmers; the percentage of female programmers is far smaller.
In the years that I worked for that operating system group, I only remember one incident of overt sexism - when an executive from corporate headquarters publicly remarked about the chest size of one of the managers. Everyone on our team--men and women alike--were shocked and disgusted.
I certainly cannot recall anybody insinuating, as a Google engineer recently did, that women were less technically competent than men. Either you could do your job or you couldn't. At least, that's how I remember it.
Of course, being a guy, I may have missed a lot of sexist stuff going on, so to check my memory, I emailed one of the female senior programmers and asked for her perspective. Here's how she responded:
I do think that you are right and I'll venture a guess as to why the culture was so feminine friendly. When I first started working as a programmer there weren't many female programmers but there was a tremendous need for programming talent - jobs were available for the asking.
Women weren't competing with men for the jobs as we were all getting hired. Now that schools are producing an abundance of techies, and most CEOs are still men, the old boy network seems to be back in play. Our managers and our fellow male programmers always seemed to treat the women as equals.
High tech companies often claim that they can't find qualified female engineers because our university system isn't created enough of them. Here, too, the world has moved backwards, as US News and World Report recently pointed out:
The gender gap in computing jobs has gotten worse in the last 30 years, even as computer science job opportunities expand rapidly... In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent.
In other words, when it comes to gender diversity among the technical contributors, high tech has moved backwards. How come? What happened?
I imagine that defenders of the current situation might claim that the decline in female contributors and computer science majors is because high tech is a meritocracy. Under this way of thinking, if women could do the job, they'd be better represented today.
The meritocracy argument crumbles, however, when you consider that coding was more difficult thirty years ago. Programming languages were more primitive, computer resources were more constrained and there was far less tolerance among customers for egregiously buggy software.
If I were to pick a culprit, I would guess the retreat from gender equity in high tech is a reflection of the backlash against feminism that started during the Reagan era. Before then, the Equal Rights Amendment almost became part of the constitution; today, by contrast, we have a POTUS who only hires women who look good in pencil skirts and pumps.
Sad, really, to consider how far we haven't come.