Interview with Irene Greif, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT
The Atlantic has a wonderful interview with Irene Greif, the first woman to get a computer science Ph.D. from MIT. She discusses her life and legacy, describing what it was like to be a part of the early days of MIT’s computer science program and detailing her experience as a woman at the school in the mid-60s.
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.
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