Radia Perlman: Don't Call Me the Mother of the Internet

The way I actually learned how to program was that as a sophomore at MIT I was taking a physics class and the TA said to me “I need a programmer for a project. Would you like to be my programmer?” I said “I don’t know how to program.” He said “Yes, I know. That’s why I’m asking you. You’re obviously bright, so I’m sure you can learn (I was doing very well in the class), and I have no money to pay you. If you knew how to program I’d have to pay you.” At that time, I had a boyfriend who knew how to program. So even though learning programming seemed scary to me, it would be a safe way to learn.

My first paying computer job was in 1971 as a part time programmer at the MIT AI lab, in the Logo group, writing system software like debuggers. I worked there while going to school.

Then I got inspired to design a programming language, together with special “keyboards” and other input devices, for teaching programming concepts similar to Logo, but to much younger children. This was actually a cool project…and decades later some people from the MIT Media project tracked me down and said this project started a whole field known as “tangible computing.” But at the time, I abandoned it because, being the only woman around, I wanted to be taken seriously as a “scientist” and was a little embarrassed that my project involved cute little kids.

In your studies and when you first started working in the field, did you have many female colleagues? What was the environment for a young woman like in those days?

I went to MIT at a time when the number of females was strictly limited by the number that could fit into the single female dorm, so there were very few women (I think 50 out of a class of 1000). But since I was required to live in the women’s dorm I at least knew some women. But when I was a sophomore most of the men’s dorms became “coed,” and that sounded like fun, so I moved out of the women’s dorm and into a “coed” dorm. But with so few women, “coed” pretty much meant I was the “resident female.” I didn’t really see other women in the dorm. And I majored in math, so I didn’t see them in my classes either. It became so normal to me not to see women around that I didn’t notice the gender imbalance. It was only when occasionally there was a(nother) female in a class that I’d notice that it kind of looked weird…this other gender person looking curiously out of place in the crowd. I’d have to remind myself that I was also that “other gender.”

After graduating, I went to grad school, again at MIT in math. After I’d completed all my coursework and exams, I had no idea how to write a thesis. I had no advisor … MIT math department, at least at that time, was not helpful about matching students with advisors… An old friend asked me if I was enjoying grad school and I said “Not really. I have no idea how to find an advisor and write a thesis.” He said “Come join our group at BBN Technologies (Bolt Beranek and Newman)”, and so I did. That involved designing network protocols, and I really enjoyed it. I did wind up returning to grad school 10 years later, again at MIT, but this time in computer science, and completed my Ph.D.

Anyway, at BBN one of my coworkers there was female, and I really enjoyed working with her. But for a lot of my career since then, it’s been rare for me to be working on something in a group that has women.

After BBN, in 1980, I joined Digital Equipment Corporation, to design routing for DECnet, which happened to be the perfect job in the perfect place at the perfect time, but I really didn’t get to work with women there.

In what ways would you say that attitudes toward women have changed during your years in the field?

Honestly, not much has changed. Obviously it was possible to have a job in the industry long ago (like my mother did in the 1950s). People’s assumptions these days are that companies are desperate to hire and promote women, and that being female must be a big advantage. Companies do spend money on sponsoring events for women’s groups, but actual hiring decisions are based on subjective feelings, and I think there is often an unconscious bias where the hiring manager doesn’t really see a “true engineer” if the candidate doesn’t fulfill some preconceived vision (for instance, a younger version of himself). None of this is intentional, and it’s very difficult to do anything about it.

That being said, nothing is specifically gender related, even though some things might be statistically true. I’d suspect that a higher percentage of boys than girls dive right in and take things apart when they are young. But certainly not all boys do, and certainly some girls do. And, that’s not the only type of person that makes a good engineer.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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