The First Woman to Get a Ph.D. in Computer Science From MIT

Irene Greif talks to The Atlantic about her life and legacy.
Courtesy of Irene Greif

Irene Greif always thought she'd be a teacher. "For one thing," she told me, "I'd been told by my mother that it was good to be a teacher because you just worked the hours your kids were in school and you could come home." It had just always been the profession in the back of her mind, the default.

So then it must have been a bit of a shock when, after in 1975 becoming the first woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT, Greif discovered that she didn't really enjoy teaching—she much preferred research. And so eventually she left teaching as a professor and did what she did best: studying, thinking, and figuring systems out. She founded a research field, computer-supported cooperative work, and has spent her life figuring out how to build better systems for humans to work together.

Greif recently retired from IBM, where she'd been since the mid-'90s, and is hoping to devote some time to encouraging young women to go into STEM fields and coaching them to stick with them—a twist on teaching that she does genuinely like.

I spoke with Greif recently about her experience as a young woman in a field with so few other women, about how things changed during the course of her career, and for what advice she wishes she'd had when she was first starting out. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Why were you first drawn to computer science?

Well I got exposed to computers as early as high school. I was at Hunter College High School [in New York City] and we took a course in the college nextdoor, using an IBM 1401. So I started with punchcards and zeroes and ones and machine language and so on.

And what year would that have been?

That was probably my senior year in high school, so that would have been '64-'65.

I had always liked math. My mother had always liked math. She was an accountant, so that meant adding numbers. Over my career I learned about other notions of what math is and what a mathematician does. I liked logic problems, which I think probably drove me to computer science.

When I went to MIT it was early—they were just starting to define a computer science undergraduate degree. It was in engineering—which it still is now—and it actually had more of an engineering feel than I was comfortable with, and I kept slipping back and forth between math and the new computer science, and ended up getting a math degree instead.

There are some interesting things about that. There are a lot of kinds of math that are very close to computer science and I was able to choose some of those things and kind of piece together my computer-science major by making it have the feel I liked. But I think I also learned a lot about how different people think, by switching from the engineering mentality to math and back and forth, and it probably helped me in my career, in that it made me good at interdisciplinary kinds of work.

Can you talk a bit about what it was like being a woman at MIT during that time?

I think I was in the first big co-ed class. There had been women at MIT for ... forever, I'd have to check. But the big breakthrough for undergraduate women at MIT came in the 1960s, the mid-'60s, when Katharine McCormick donated a dormitory for women to MIT. [Editor's note: The money was actually donated at the tail end of the 1950s, but the dormitory took a few years to construct.] And that made a huge difference in whether parents would let their daughters go to the school.

In my class, that entered in '65, we had 50 women, in a class of 1,000. And that was big.

By now it's close to 50-50, so there's really been a huge change compared to what it had been.

I know you say that was "big," but that still seems quite small, at least compared to my own college experience. What was it like being on campus with so few other women around? What was it like socially?

Well, different people were different but, yes, there was a lot of working together and studying with the other women. There were certainly women who have stayed friend forever since then, and I have some friends from that time.

I remember, though, feeling that it was hard to find appropriate study groups. Because if you didn't find the right women doing the right courses in your dorm, finding a group of guys to work with was just, you know, for young women, laden with this is-this-dating-or-is-this-working-together kind of stuff. So it was hard.

I imagine it's easier now that there's a more even mix and you don't have to be—or try to be—the one girl in a little study group doing whatever the subject is you happen to be studying.

So, yes, I think we got very close to each other in the dorm, but I think it really was limiting and an issue.

Did you feel like the male undergraduates and male faculty respected your intelligence in a way that was equal to how they respected your male peers?

It's so hard to say. I mean, you know, we all had experiences of feeling like the professor kept looking directly at me to see if I nodded and got it. You did feel unusual and singled out in class. 

I've certainly talked to people [women] in other fields who were told explicitly, you're going to waste your degree, or you shouldn't be doing this, or you should study X instead of Y. I never had that kind of experience at MIT.

So what was the next step for you, after finishing up your undergraduate work at MIT?

I stayed in graduate school at MIT, and so, in graduate school, my Master's and Ph.D., are in computer science. And I was, literally, the first woman to get a first computer science Ph.D. at MIT. There were other women who got computer-science degrees at other schools before me. So, you know, it's a mix of—it was early, and I'm old now—but also of which schools gave which degrees when. But I was among the earliest at all, and literally the first at MIT.

That's awesome.

It is awesome, but I always talk a lot about a woman, Candy Sidner, who was the third computer-science Ph.D. who, with a group of women, wrote a report, one of the first reports, on what it felt like to be a woman in the department and described the behaviors of men who were hard to deal with and so on. And I just always felt like, even being in the tiny cohort that she was in, having a couple of other women to talk to, made a huge difference in sorting out what's me and what's going on around me. And I never had that.

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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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