Monday, December 16, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - Women

Ken Olsen was a big believer in numbers. Employees were assigned consecutive numbers based onAlma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.
order of hire, later becoming their badge numbers. Ken was #1 Harlan was #2. The first two women hired were Alma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.

Women were not rare at Digital. From perusing a list of the first 100 full-time employees, 36 were women. Years later, the main reasons Olsen gave for locating in Maynard were low rent and a local work force with lots of factory experience. Many of the women were walk-to-work Maynardites, some who had worked in the same buildings in the woolen mill era, which had ended less than 10 years back. The newly refurbished work areas were clean, quiet and well lit, although hot during the summers, as air conditioning was not installed until around 1970. Throughout the buildings, summer weather meant lanolin from the old wool-processing days dripping down the walls or from the ceilings above.    

Women at DEC, assembling boards (date unknown). This is
probably the original space in Building 12.
Alma E. Pontz was the first woman hired. According to her 2013 obituary she had already put in 24 years in the wool business before being hired by Olsen as the first administrative assistant She was more than a decade older than her bosses. She stayed with DEC until she retired 21 years later.

Gloria Porrazzo was the first woman hired to work in assembling Laboratory Modules and Systems Modules. These products allowed Digital to be profitable from its first year onward. According to Peter Koch, plant manager, Porrazzo stayed with the company for 25 years, rising to the level of production manager. The 50 to 60 women who worked for her in Assembly were informally known as "Gloria's Girls." They were responsible for inserting electronic components into circuit boards, welds and quality control. Ken Olsen was known to drop in for coffee and a chat with Gloria to keep abreast of any production problems. 
"Light, clean work in our Production Department for
girls and women with good eyesight and nimble fingers."
Why women on the production floor? Because it was no longer legal to hire children. Back in the woolen mill years, children were hired for the manual dexterity. In time, women had taken over those jobs. A DEC job openings advertisement from 1959 specified a preference for women with good eyesight and nimble fingers. Some women worked the “Mother Shift,” meaning their day ended in time for them to be home when their kids got out of school.

Digital was not averse to hiring women with technical expertise, but some of the customers had a hard time adapting. Olsen had gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus to interview students in the electrical engineering department in 1960. One result was the hiring of Barbara Stephenson in 1961. From Barbara: "I was the first woman engineer at DEC. Customers would call for an applications engineer. They would say 'I want to speak with an engineer,' and I would reply 'I'm an engineer,' and they would say, 'No, I want to speak with a real engineer.' I developed this patter: 'Well, tell me about the application you have in mind. We have three lines of modules ranging from five to ten megacycles and …' The line would go dead for a moment and then I’d hear, 'Hey Joe, guess what, I’ve got a…woman…engineer on the phone!'"
Barbara Stephenson: first
woman engineer at DEC

Women were promoted from within. Rose Ann Giordano was hired from Xerox in 1979 to work in marketing, promoted to manager in 1981, then promoted in 1984 to become the first woman vice president and corporate officer at Digital Equipment Corporation. Earlier, Maynard resident Angela Cossette was hired as an administrative assistant in 1963 in support for DEC User's Society. DECUS provided a pre-internet forum for computer users to exchange technical information and user-developed software. Cossette moved up to becoming the company's first woman manager, in time with as many as 100 people reporting to her. In her own words "...Digital became very aggressive about giving women the opportunity to grow in their careers and making it possible for them to move into key positions." [Quote from company newsletter Digital This Week.] Cossette retired in 1992.

Cossette’s comment reflected Digital's self-realization that it had a problem with its history of male-dominated culture. A Core Groups program was started in 1977, evolving into the Valuing Differences philosophy in 1984. The stated goal was for the company and its employees to pay attention to differences of individuals and groups, to be comfortable with those differences, and to utilize those differences as assets to the company's productivity.

Mark went to MIT (where Ken Olsen got his undergraduate when the undergraduate population was 7 percent female. It is now 45 percent. Faculty is 25 percent women.


  1. My wife Barbara worked at MIT for eight years, six of them for Paul Gray. By the time she left to finish earning her first bachelor's degree at UMass Boston, he was the #2 man there. She had come to know his family very well. A little later when he became MIT's President, she was hired to work part time as his wife's social secretary. At one of the services celebrating him after his death, his son related that he'd once asked his father what he thought the best thing at MIT was. The answer: "Abolishing the women's dorm" (which was across the river in Boston). The number of women admitted to MIT had been limited by that one dorm's capacity. After that it soared. Paul Gray was a great man.

  2. Correction to my earlier post: Paul Gray's son had asked his father what he thought the best thing he'd done at MIT had been.