Blue Woman

Thank you Lydia, for the opportunity you gave me to write something about my experience as a woman in IT!

Most of my stories are old, because I am old. I hope you can smile a bit about how odd things were in the 19-seventies and –eighties. Maybe you can also cry a bit about how little has changed for the better, for women in IT.

Let’s start at the beginning, about how I got hired by IBM at the end of 1969.

In 1969 I was studying mathematics at the university of Amsterdam. I was about half-way my study having just obtained a bachelor’s degree. In those days this did not count as something you could leave university with. To find a proper job, you needed to have a master’s degree at least.

Furthermore, important for this story is, that I lived with my future husband in a small apartment on the second floor, in the center of Amsterdam.

Descending the stairs one day, my eye fell on a pile of newspapers that my first floor neighbor had put outside his door, probably to throw away. On top was an advertisement from IBM, asking for software developers. You could apply if you had graduated or were about to graduate in a technical field of study. After two days the newspaper was still there and my curiosity took over, therefore I tore the advertisement out. At the time I did not know anybody who was working with computers and I had never seen one, but the thought of working with these mystical machines fascinated me.

I wrote IBM a letter, explaining that I did not want to apply, because I had about three years to go in my study, but that I would be really interested to learn what the possibilities were. A while later a letter came, inviting me to their international development laboratory, in a small village called Uithoorn, 15 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  I had to look it up on a map.

So I went. What I remember is, that while sitting nervously in the reception area, the receptionist tried to help someone to plan a trip to Paris by train. In those days there was a thick booklet with very thin paper containing the train schedules and the receptionist did not know how to use it.

My Montessori education to the rescue! I explained how to find what she needed, and I was more proud of that, than the Programmer Aptitude Test (PAT) I did afterwards, an IQ test in disguise. (Years later I heard that I had a very high score, nobody told me then).  I talked to some people and it was not very clear to me what they were exactly doing.

That was that and I forgot about it. To my very big surprise a letter came about two months later to ask me to go to a medical assessment.

I was incredulous. Are they offering me a job? To find out, I went to the medical examination, where the doctor told me that I had a fantastic set of teeth, because my mouth was full of gold. And a few weeks later again a letter arrived, offering me a job as “junior programmer”, for the monthly salary of 1100 Dutch guilders, plus 1 month at the end of the year, plus 1 month vacation money in June.

To explain how much money this was, I need to tell that there was a salary limit in the Netherlands.  About 70 percent of the working population earned below this limit and were given obligatory national health insurance for a low price. People who earned above this limit could take their own medical insurance, which was, by the way, mostly paid by IBM for their employees. These 1100 guilders were clearly above the limit.

When I told my parents that I would take the job, they were furious and disappointed. Their daughter first started with mathematics instead of medicine and then did not even finish her study! They turned around about a year later when I was sent on a business trip to the US. Business class. I must have been worth something to be sent on a mission like that.

On my first day, October 1st, 1969, I asked the human resources manager, an out-of-this-world person with initials U.F.O., why he wanted to hire me because I did not finish my study. He said other things were more important. As a case in point, the manager of the development laboratory  brought as credentials “rowing and common sense”.  Certainly I can relate to the benefits of rowing, my favorite sport since I retired.

I also asked my new American direct manager, why he wanted to hire me, because I was female and because I intended to marry in the near future. As a side note: in the Netherlands primary school teachers were fired when they married until only a few years earlier. Also, I heard from a friend that she did not get a job at a large company in the south of the Netherlands, because she told she would be married soon. My new manager said that I would have a female, married colleague who was there for already three years and that this was longer than many male colleagues would stay. I worked for IBM for a total of 30 years!

IBM changed my world and changed my life. The first years felt like heaven. Then, after I had children, it was a rocky road. It was very interesting to have been part of the computer revolution and I hope to tell more about it later.

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