The Atlantic

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

Irene Greif talks to The Atlantic about her life and legacy.
Source: Courtesy of Irene Greif / Photo by Ben Shneiderman

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

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