The Tech Gender Gap Has Only Gotten Worse, But Steve Jobs’ Contemporaries Think It Can Be Fixed

When Apple released the original Macintosh in the mid-1980s, the percentage of women majoring computer science was on the rise: 37 percent of computer science graduates were women.

But in 1984, the same year Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh, that trend reversed. In 2010 only 18 percent of computer science graduates were female. Onstage at an event in Palo Alto, the women who were closest with Steve Jobs at the start of his career called that reversal “dismaying.”

“There’s computer science in everything now,” said Barbara Koalkin Barza, a former product marketing manager for the Mac. “We have to reframe the industry.”

But despite the increasing talent pipeline issues, the women who worked with Jobs in the early days of Apple saw hope in women increasingly supporting each other in their careers and forming Lean In circles. They said such support is part of what helped them succeed in the early days of Apple.

The said it was also essential for women in leadership positions to do more for other women. 

“You have to drive that culture out when you can,” said Susan Barnes. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

In recent weeks, criticism has emerged about the way Jobs is portrayed in the recent Aaron Sorkin film. Joanna Hoffman, the fifth member of the Macintosh team and a leading character in the film, realized the movie got at least one thing right besides Kate Winslet’s dead-on portrayal of her accent. Women played an integral role in the development of all the companies Jobs started.

In the film, Winslet plays Hoffman as Jobs’ right-hand woman. She is the only one who stands up to him, and she is by his side at every product launch. Though Hoffman was actually known as the “chief stand up to Steve officer,” she only worked with him on the Macintosh team and a year at NEXT. She was not with him for 14 years, and though she says she often played the role of “the party pooper” when Jobs would launch into grand visions and unattainable goals, her role in Jobs’ life was elevated in the film.

In fact Hoffman told TechCrunch Winslet’s character in the film actually embodies many of the different women who worked with Jobs over the years.

Five of those women — Barza, BarnesHoffmanDebi Coleman and Andy Cunningham — joined journalist Katie Hafner onstage earlier this week at the SAP offices to recount the impact Jobs had on their careers and lives.

The packed room was filled with many early Apple, Next and Pixar employees. The atmosphere was similar to a college reunion, with attendees hugging former coworkers they hadn’t seen in years. Andy Hertzfeld, the original Macintosh designer portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg in the recent film, sat in the second row. 

The women said Steve Jobs didn’t care about gender, and he never treated employees differently on that basis. He cared most about their contributions.

“We all spent many hours with him, but we never felt in any way, shape or form that he was treating any of us differently as a man or a woman,” Barnes said. 

Barnes said in the 1980s, she struggled to make negotiations with executives as a company in Japan as a woman. Jobs then sent an email to the executives saying Ms. Barnes would be making the decisions. Jobs often talked about how Japan’s economy would suffer for not giving women equal opportunities.

Hoffman said she was perplexed by the gender gap is widening in computer science and not the life sciences. 

“I had a roommate at MIT who was a biologist. She was the most brilliant of all of us, and she got so fed up with the sexism of that whole world that she actually became a programmer,” Hoffman said. “Somehow women are willing to put up with that or fight it or willing to take charge. Maybe there is a choice involved. I’m willing to sacrifice for this and not for that.”

Hoffman said she is hopeful for the next generation after seeing the work her son has done to engage children in tech. Her son dropped out to work with the Make School, a Y-Combinator backed computer science school. 

“They could immediately see the result of their work,” Hoffman said. “Now many of these young people are studying computer science at the higher level.”