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Why Women Programmers Were the Foundation of the Computing Age, and Where They Went

Women in computing helped Britain win World War II. Then they were pushed out of the industry, and the industry itself foundered.

Women’s Royal Naval Service members operate the Colossus Mark 2 machine, which went into operation just before D-Day and provided critical codebreaking for the invasion’s success.   Photo: National Archives (U.K.)

When news of the Google memo broke—an internal criticism of the company’s diversity initiatives by a since-fired engineer from the Chicago suburbs—its claims about women in computing set off a debate not only about the appropriateness of the memo’s existence but also about its argument. I immediately thought of Marie Hicks, author of the book Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing.

Hicks, assistant professor in history the University of Wisconsin (previously at the Illinois Institute of Technology), tells the story of how the British computer industry began with the world’s first electronic, digital, programmable computer, the Colossus codebreaking machine that helped the Allies win World War II. This gave the country a head start in the postwar tech world, and women were by and large responsible for running those computers in wartime and afterward.

A couple decades after the war, women were being pushed out of the industry, and Great Britain lost its lead in technology. Hicks’s book shows how the former trend is inextricably tied to the latter: for cultural reasons, the government actively and passively got rid of the women computer operators and programmers who held so much of the knowledge about the nascent technology, leading to worker shortages and a fragile, highly centralized tech industry that was unable to make the transition from the era of massive mainframes to personal computers.

Her story begins with her personal experience—when, during the first internet bubble, she was hired to work in IT.

You were a history major at Harvard, and then you went to work for the university as a UNIX systems administrator. Was it that combination of experiences that led you to the subject of Programmed Inequality?

I didn’t actually get interested in the history of computing until I went to grad school, and that was largely influenced by what I saw as a systems administrator: My peers were pretty much all young men, and all of my bosses were women. Everybody on my level, my age, was kind of flummoxed. Our bosses were like, you don’t understand, this is not weird. Computing used to have a lot more women in it. It really got me thinking about why that was, and why it changed.

It’s funny—my mother was, in fact, a computer programmer. She dropped out of grad school at Harvard in astronomy—in large part because she was constantly being told that she was taking the place of a man—to work as a computer programmer. She had a math degree, and they were hiring anybody they could who had a math degree or seemed like they were capable of programming computers.

When you started taking an academic interest in this history, what led you to the British computer industry?

Two things. The first is that the U.S. computer industry is really overstudied, which meant we were drawing all sorts of crazy conclusions—like that the U.S. was the last superpower left standing after World War II, and using that as an explanation for this huge important technological change. We were ignoring the whole rest of the world which was doing stuff in computing—sometimes really important stuff.

And since I’m a European historian, and English is my native language, and I’d done some study in Britain, I got interested in the U.K. case, and through that I realized that the U.K. case is probably a key story to tell, because they invented the first electronic, programmable computer. Those machines were used to change geopolitical events at a time when the best electronic computing technology in the United States was just in a testing phase.

The Colossus codebreaking computers that were deployed at Blechley Park—they were top secret, and they were decrypting German codes during the war. They were the reason the Allies knew where and when to land on D-Day, because they were able to unlock that encoded information fast enough, so they could actually move their forces around and act on that information, in a way that helped ensure military victory.

Then after the war the British go on to be very, very strong in computing—matching or even beating the United States in terms of technical achievements. They have the first deployed computer for business use. And we don’t think about what happened to their industry as well. How did they survive the war and austerity, and then their industry, their computing industry seems to evaporate?

But also, my question, as I went into the archives, is why did this gendered labor flip occur? I really wanted that to be the core of the story. And it turned out, just by pure luck, that part of the story was really tightly interwoven with the failure of the British computing industry.

How did computer work become feminized in the first place?

It had been feminized all through the decades prior to that. Before computers existed as machines, the term “computer” referred to a person. It was sort of like a profession, like accountant—but without the prestige or implication of skill. Women were the original human computers. They’d do these calculations by hand or with the aid of desktop counting machines. They’d often be put into an assembly line so that a whole room of women computers could do these very complex calculations, because they were dividing up the work.

Because of that, as machines start to become more complex, the women start using electromechanical machines, these room-sized installations that are pre-electronic, but very much like electronic computers, in terms of how you think about programming them. And then when the machines become electronic, they’re the go-to labor force for electronic computing as well.

And they stay that way through the ’50s and into the ’60s. It’s only then that leaders in government and industry start to think about computing differently. As computers become more powerful, they realize that the folks who have this technical knowledge control these super-powerful machines, which are now changing the entire structure of government and industry. They think: We can’t rely, any longer, on these low-level women workers, because what we need are management-oriented men—people who can manage machines and people, and have the big-picture thinking.

What are the mechanisms, in the 1950s and 1960s, that management uses to push women out of this field?

It was a lot more obvious and direct than I would have imagined. The civil service, for instance, is the biggest computer user in this period. The civil service bills itself as a meritocracy, an exams-mediated meritocracy. You take the exams, and then you get to rise to the level of your skill.

That actually was completely false. There were different civil service exams for men and for women, and there were certain grades [or levels] that were just for women—the ones that were considered lowlier. Within the women’s grades, what do you think the biggest grade was? It was the machine grade, the people who work with office machines. They’re completely cut off from the lines of promotion and the better jobs in the civil service.

Similar things happen in industry in a less regularized way. Women’s grades, including the machine grades, are excluded from the provisions of the equal pay act. The government’s rationale was, these machine grades are almost 100 percent women, and that’s the market rate for the job now.

For decades, they were depressing the wages in these fields of work. So of course young men were not going to go into them. Rather than raise the pay for machine grades, in the civil service, they created a higher professional class of workers for men who were doing the exact same work but for higher salaries. All of the women who have the technical skills to do that work are barred from applying for those jobs.

One of the things that stunned me was how early, in the career of a machine-grade worker, promotion, and salary increases are capped. Once you turn 30 or so, you’ve risen about as high as you can.

Because, again, the idea was that women were not real workers. They were just going to be in the workforce a few years, until they were able to get married and have children. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you’re being paid and treated poorly, of course you’re going to go do something else.

How does the broader culture surrounding this push change and influence the process? In the book, you talk about how computer advertising reflects the process of pushing women out and bringin men in.

Computer companies on both sides of the Atlantic use women as computer workers in the ads. It sends a clear signal to managers who might buy the machines: look, you pay for the expensive machine, but don’t worry, you don’t have to employ a bunch of high-skill, technical staff. You can use women to do these jobs.

That signals that you’ll have to pay less for their labor. And it also signals—this was just a perception, it wasn’t true—that these jobs were not that hard. These machines weren’t so intimidating and difficult to use, because women were able to do the work—and it’s going to be easy to replace them if they leave.

How does this situation play out in private industry, where it’s less structured?

Because the government is such a massive computer user (computing in this era is essentially a military, government project), it has enormous amount of control over what the British computer industry is doing. By the late 1960s, they’ve basically thrown away their whole trained technical workforce by saying women can’t do these jobs anymore. Men come in, maybe spend a year in it, think they can make better money or that there’s not a career ladder in this, and then they leave—there’s really high turnover.

The government’s scrambling to basically run all these computer installations. They decide they need to centralize, with bigger and bigger mainframes to run everything—so they can function, then, with this small number of available computer professionals. So they turn to the British computing industry and say: you need to make these huge mainframes.

In fact, they force a merger of all the last viable British computing companies down into this one megacompany called ICL. This goes very poorly. ICL pours all of its R&D into this product line, at a time when mainframes are on the way out—they’re getting smaller and more decentralized. By the time ICL produces what the government has asked for, they can’t sell it to anybody else, and the government doesn’t even really want it anymore.

The government has shot its computer industry in the foot, or even right in the chest.

And without that centralization and aggressive merger, the industry would have been a lot more robust.

There’s really no question. The thing is, hardware is important, but software is even more important. This period is the dark ages for writing software. They threw away all of the talent, all of the women who knew how to write it.

To give you one parallel universe example, Dame Stephanie Shirley. She’s trying to work her way up in the government, and because she’s a woman, they simply will not promote her. She leaves, and she decides to start her own freelance programming company, and she has to masquerade for a bit at the beginning by signing her letters “Steve” instead of Stephanie in order to get a foot in the door to get the government and industry contracts to write software.

She ends up being enormously, enormously successful, and ends up writing some of the most important software that’s used throughout government and industry. She does all this, not just by herself, but by hiring the many talented women programmers who were discarded by government and industry jobs when they got married or had children. She gives them flexible working hours or allows them to work from home. [Ed. note: Her company was initially called Freelance Programmers.] Through that, she’s able to completely change the face of British software, make things much more technologically advanced, and she does this on the backs of women.

I think that’s a pretty clear example of how, if more of that had gone on, British computing would have been so much bigger and better.

How are other technologically powerful countries approaching computers in that period?

The U.S. has a far larger labor force. These are relatively small fields at this point in time. Hundreds or thousands of workers make a big difference. The U.S. has a lot more leeway to make errors.

You’ve probably read or definitely heard of Margo Lee Shetterly’s great book Hidden Figures. Well, the black women computers and programmers who are doing that work help the U.S. get to the moon and pull out a late win in the space race.

But the early stages of that space race, we lost. And Sputnik was terrifying for the United States. We thought it was going to be death from above. The Soviet Union had been really badly damaged by World War II, and yet even so, they were able to give us a run for our money. I’m not going to say they were a utopia or anything of that sort, but I don’t think it was a coincidence they were using their labor efficiently—women and men were spread throughout industry, unlike the U.S., where women were forced back into the home.

Given the relative position of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. coming out of World War II, I think it’s very apparent that, if we had done a better job of being less discriminatory towards women, black people, and black women, we would have had a lot more power at our disposal to fuel innovation.

Does the British computing industry bounce back after the period your book covers, both in terms of the health of the industry generally and the integration of women back into it?

Yes and no. After ‘79 or so, we’re getting into the personal computer revolution, and that is a break with the mainframe era that I’m talking about. A lot’s been made about how personal computers were used to push women even farther to the margins, because they were marketed as boys’ toys in a lot of ways.

All of the effects of decades of gender discrimination are coming home to roost in the 1980s. It was not a terrific time for convincing young women that PCs and computer science are for them. At least in the United States, the percentage of women getting degrees in computer science peaks in about 1985, and then just declines. It doesn’t go up again until, I believe, 2008, and it declines again, and it comes back again in 2011, and it’s been bouncing around since then.

You were quoted in a really interesting article in the Guardian about gender divides in front-end and back-end computer programming. Do you agree that there’s something there?

Yes. There are a lot of gender divisions in Silicon Valley, in computing work today, based on which jobs are seen as hardcore engineering and which are not. People who do all sorts of legitimate computing work—but have a title like testing engineer or something—are less likely to get a high salary, and less likely to be seen as a real programmer, and more likely to be women. It’s the same historical process going on, replicating itself, and it’s something very clear in high-technology fields, but it’s not exclusive to them. It’s a much broader cultural problem undervaluing women and their work.

I hate to bring politics into it, but if we look at what’s going on at the national political level, it’s very very clear that women are still not expected to hold or wield power. When you get a field like high tech where there is a lot of power, and these jobs are considered very important and powerful, then it only makes sense that women are not going to be holding them in large numbers.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you wanted to talk about?

This is something that I try to tack on nowadays. A lot of times people—especially women in tech—find this very depressing that the history seems to show that things are getting worse. One of the reasons I do this work is because I think it’s really important to show that, unlike the Google memo claim, the lack of women in the computing field is not because of innate, biological differences. They’re cultural. And not only can they change, they have changed, and they have changed over very short periods of time.

If we understand them, they are changeable, and they’re undo-able. There’s this complex called “stereotype threat.” It’s this idea that when someone sees a stereotype out there in the world, like “women are bad at math,” a woman who sees that and then is asked to do a math test, she does badly in comparison to if she hadn’t seen that. These stereotypes are very harmful, not just women, not just people of color, but to everybody. We’re all in this together, we’re all dragging down our economy and society when we discard the potential of huge parts of our society.

Knowing that there is this unconscious interplay between negative stereotypes and people not being able to fulfill their potential, it’s been shown that when people know that that’s the case, it’s less likely to have as bad an effect on them. So I’d just like to end by saying all the people that read the Google memo, and felt bad about it, especially women—who’ve probably felt this isn’t true, but have probably also unconsciously gotten stereotype threat from it—there’s more than enough historical and other information, and yes, scientific information, to show that it’s completely false. It becomes just a little bit easier to work past it.

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