My Mother the Computer Programmer

My mother did the traditional thing when she married in 1963. She left work to raise children. She did housework and in her spare time enjoyed embroidering. She even exhibited her embroidery. But underneath this conventional exterior my mother did things differently.

Mum decided to complete year twelve when I was a baby. Her mother-in-law approved of her studying.  “She was pleased to have a daughter in law that had a mind above housework”, recalled my mother. My grandmother had gone to university herself and worked in London and Paris in the 1920s. My mother appreciates the fact that her mother-in-law encouraged her and looked after me while my mother did her year twelve exams.

My father got a new job so we moved away from our family in Melbourne and settled in Hobart. I remember at dinner my father would invariably ask what my mother had done that day. As a seven or eight year old I disliked the question because I knew the dreary response that would come from my mother. “I washed the clothes and hung them out, then I vacuumed the stairs and upstairs….” Zzzzzz. As a child I recognised how deadly dull my mother’s life was and felt sorry for her.

Of course I didn’t say anything to her about that at the time but years later Mum told me how much she dreaded that habitual question from my father. However, my father was listening. “He saw I was bored”, she said. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my father’s attention. It was about studying at university. He encouraged my mother to apply.  This would have been 1972 or 1973.

Mum enrolled in a science degree and studied part-time while we were at primary and high school. It took a long time to complete.  When I was in first year university she was finishing her honours thesis, ‘The dynamics of gully scrub in Hobart’.  She majored in geography and studied substantial amounts of statistics, botany, geology and information science during her degree. My mother loved science and maths but found writing a chore.  When she couldn’t remember a maths formula in an exam she worked it out from first principles. I admire that ability.

Mum’s life-long interest in plants was evident to me when I read her old children’s books. Often I would find a dried flower that Mum pressed between the pages when she was a child.  “In my teen years I was very keen on both rocks and flowers”, she said. Referring to university she said, “I did very well in geology… but it required a lot of excursions away from home and you two were young. It wasn’t practical”. We didn’t have any family in Tasmania and there was no after-school care. I remember my parents having difficulty dealing with childcare when Mum had practical classes that did not finish until six o’clock or university during school holidays.

My father urged Mum to do computer science because he could see the importance computers would play in the future. He did a computer course at the university himself, probably a graduate diploma.

Mum started computer science after the last punch card machine in the science faculty had been retired. “They showed us the machine as a relic and told us funny stories about people tripping and spilling cards”, she recalls.

When Mum graduated there were no jobs in her field but programmers were needed. “I only got into programming because of lack of botany jobs in Hobart.” Computer science at university had not appealed to Mum. “It was very boring, theoretical and had nothing to do with what I encountered in my job.” She made a career out of programming in COBOL, the programming language which had been disparaged at university.

Mum’s first programming job was at the Department of Education’s Elizabeth Computing Centre. It was based at the school I attended in years eleven and twelve. I remember in our year twelve computer studies class we were told how the Centre had networked all the Department’s offices in the state – quite advanced for state education systems at the time.

From there my mother moved onto programming at a wool-broking  business. When she moved back to Melbourne after my father died she got a job at the large supermarket chain, Coles. Once again she was programming in COBOL. My mother was one of a team of programmers who helped to manage the computer systems which ran the warehouses that are the final staging post before the food comes to our supermarkets. In each of the organisations where she worked most of the programmers were men but there were also a few women programmers.

Reflecting on her life in science and technology after she married Mum recognises the importance of the support and encouragement of her husband. He urged her to enrol at university and supported her endeavour during the years it took to complete her degree. When Mum started working I remember Dad felt that he had a responsibility to do more housework. I had never seen him vacuuming before and his style was quite funny. He didn’t believe in gently vacuuming around furniture. No, he lifted the lounge furniture and vigorously vacuumed underneath.

As Mum’s life in education and work shows men have an important role in encouraging women to fulfil their potential. The story of my father and the vacuum demonstrates that it does not have to be an extravagant gesture. Ongoing small acts of consideration and encouragement are ideal.


Since computers were invented women have been programmers. The programmers of the ENIAC computer, one of the world’s first electronic computers were all women.  It was a woman, Grace Hopper, who was instrumental in developing the COBOL programming language which was so widely adopted by business world-wide from the 1960s.

And who started it all?  Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, is recognised as the world’s first programmer. Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day where we recognise women’s achievements in science, technology and maths. I have written this post about my mother in recognition of her work and the work of many other women around the world who do not star but who quietly and competently work with information technology.

Women have been working capably with computers for a long time.

This is the third in a series of posts about my mother’s education and work in science, maths and technology.  In the first post I share my mother’s memories of her school education in Victorian country high schools of the 1950s. The next post was about my mother’s work as a technical assistant in research laboratories in Melbourne in the early 1960s.

I am interested in exploring the work of the Elizabeth Computing Centre in the 1970s and 1980s. If you know anything about this, please contact me at perkinsy1 at gmail dot com

10 thoughts on “My Mother the Computer Programmer

  1. Thanks for this heartwarming story. In an Australian social climate where there is still a widespread reluctance to acknowledge the capacity and contribution of women, it’s very pleasant to read an example of how a mutually respectful relationship can deliver enrichment to a marriage, family and the economic life of the nation.


    • Thankyou Katherine. Yes, our society benefits from “mutually respectful” relationships in families. It is often the mundane, everyday actions of family members that create these relationships which help the family members to flourish. I don’t think this is recognised enough. It is a host of little actions, not the occasional flamboyant gesture which counts. Rhetoric is meaningless but respectful everyday conversation is important.

      However, in reading what I have just written I wonder if I have made our family’s past look too perfect and the road we travelled look too easy? A family history is a complex web of stories. I have plucked just one, albeit an important one, out of the many I could have told.


      • No, Yvonne, I certainly didn’t interpret your story as an idealized version of family life – in fact your own mention of those daily moments of boredom at your father’s enquiry about your mother’s day was a nice little hint of those other subtleties, now reviewed with adult understanding. My parents met at university in the early 1930s, but neither society nor my father supported the idea of a woman continuing a career – but that’s another and all too common story. Well done!


  2. Thanks Yvonne,
    That was a really interesting post. So wonderful that your father was very supportive of your mother. My father was a computer programmer who designed a program for Advertising agencies. He also attended the first computer course run in Sydney.
    Have you written about your grandmother’s travels. I’m particularly interested in Paris in the Twenties from an expat’s point of view.


    • I’m curious, what was the first computer course in Sydney and when was it?

      My grandmother had an interesting life but I don’t think much has been recorded which is a shame. I have to do a lot of work to find out more.


      • As far as I know he did it in the late 60s you know when they were massive machines. Sorry I don’t have any more details either. He also worked at Channel 7 and Channel 10 doing the advertising programming.


  3. What a great post Yvonne – I’ve finally read it! Such an honest story about how women like your Mum navigated the spheres of kids and work in the past, giving different emphasis to each in their own time. I don’t think it’s nearly talked about enough. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂


    • I’m glad you like it Chloe. I agree that these issues are not discussed enough. While this story is of a woman from an older generation I don’t think anything much has changed in terms of balance children and careers or women’s participation in information technology careers. This paper (pdf) discloses that there was a decline in the proportion of women enrolled in Australian IT degree courses between 1991 to 1998. From what I can see online I don’t think this decline has been reversed since.

      Writing these posts has made me reflect on the value of family history for strengthening relationships within a family. In asking questions and showing interest the younger generation demonstrate they value the older members of the family. It is also a chance to discuss things remembered as a child which may have been wrongly interpreted at the time or forgotten. I’ve really enjoyed asking Mum questions about her life and understanding it in terms of the wider context at the time.


  4. I really enjoyed reading this about your mother Yvonne, I hadn’t realized those details you have shared. It gave me new insights into the lady that is your mum. God bless her and bless your lovely dad for his encouragement. She is/was a real pioneer really, going into the IT world at the time she did. Thanks for sharing. Love, Helen, your admiring mother in law!


    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading this, but please don’t think of my mother as a pioneer. The world’s first programmer was a woman. The entire programming team on the world’s first electronic digital computer in the 1940s were women. A women created the twentieth century’s most widely used programming language in the 1950s. There were more women programming than men in the early days of computers. Women have led many technical breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and maths for hundreds of years, but historically their achievements have not been trumpeted as much as those of men.

      What is profoundly disappointing is that in the western world the proportion of women working professionally in IT is falling. The proportion of female IT graduates in Australia declined between 1994 and 1998 and there are still too few women in software development. This is an issue throughout the Western world. In many countries outside the west women are increasingly becoming professionally involved in IT. This 2010 TechRepublic article is one of many discussing this issue. These statistics demonstrates that this is a cultural issue, not an issue of inherent lack of ability.

      By the time Mum started working as a programmer women were in the minority but she knew other women programmers who worked in the same organisations she did. Some time I would like to come back to this story and write about other women programmers from this era.


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