Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, by Marie Hicks

Book of the week: sidelining its female workforce cost the UK primacy in a nascent IT industry, says John Gilbey

April 6, 2017
Cathy Gillespie working on IBM 360
Source: MIT Press

At the end of the Second World War, the UK was a leader in the new field of electronic computation, exemplified by the radically new code-breaking technologies employed at Bletchley Park. Yet by the end of the 1970s, the national computer industry – apart from a few specialised areas – had largely failed. In Programmed Inequality, historian of technology Marie Hicks examines the rise and fall of government-supported computing in the UK, and especially the part played in its demise by mismanagement of the technical workforce through gender discrimination.

Despite my enthusiasm for the subject area, I approached the task of reviewing this book with a sense of unease. As a balding, bearded male in what is politely termed “late middle age”, who has worked in the public sector computing industry for many years, I wondered whether I could be seen as an honest broker in discussing a subject in which an imbalance in gender roles plays so obvious a part. Others must judge this, but as reader and reviewer, my time spent with the book has been both rewarding and chastening – leading me to reconsider both my own actions and those of the many organisations I have worked for.

In a generally chronological structure, Hicks draws a detailed picture of government computing from Bletchley Park to the effective collapse of the UK-sourced IT industry in the late 1970s. Drawing on a plethora of original material, she brings a new understanding to the ways in which government policy – especially ingrained Civil Service attitudes and strictures – constrained the role of the female workforce.

The role of electronic computing in ending the conflict in 1945 was significant, and the contribution by female workers in a wide range of technical roles was considerable. When the Bletchley Park activity was abruptly dissolved after the war – with the destruction of almost all the physical resources built thus far – the knowledge and skills developed during those years were the only elements that were available to kick-start the post-war electronic intelligence operation as well as the nascent computer industry. Hicks describes how security concerns kept the work of the largely female workforce hidden for many years afterwards, limiting the extent to which their experience and skill base could be recognised or used.

By the 1950s, both government and commercial agencies were waking up to the huge potential of automated data processing. What could have been an explosive opportunity for female employment was marred by dangerously antiquated management. For example, the Civil Service had a growing need for punched card and calculating machine operators, yet by forming a class of “machine operators”, Hicks tells us, it sought to create a “job category designed to deskill workers and depress wages” – a population she describes as a “feminised underclass”. In support of this assertion, the pay scale of senior machine operators in 1953 is illustrative: the scale for male workers was from £460 to £570 per annum, while the scale for women with the same skills and duties ran from £385 to £460. To add further insult, only a small – and dwindling – number of men were employed in this role.

While Britain’s Swinging Sixties remain famous for the brilliance of the Beatles and the delights of the King’s Road, the UK technical office worker had to contend with poor ventilation, almost universal tobacco smoke and pervasive body odour. Pay for the same work still differed markedly according to one’s gender, and glass ceilings in computing roles were endemic. Hicks plots this period with zeal, using quotes gleaned from many government reports and other documents – including such classically revealing lines as: “It is evident to common sense that women workers do not regard their career as offering an alternative career to marriage and motherhood”, stated in a Department of Science and Industry report from 1961.

To bring life and texture to the story, Hicks uses interviews with female computer workers from the 1960s to good effect, giving a real flavour of the times with a level of detail that can be achieved only at first hand. One of the women interviewed, Cathy Gillespie, is shown on the book’s cover running the boot sequence on a new IBM 360 owned by the Central Electricity Generating Board, the UK’s nationalised power provider. It is a telling illustration of the conflicts around the portrayal of female workers in the computer industry. In a publicity photo that is clearly professionally produced, Gillespie appears to take a secondary “secretarial” role to the computer itself – leading the viewer to wonder whether she was being used as eye candy rather than being included for her proven technical skills.

It seems bizarrely inappropriate today, but pin-up images regularly featured in industry publications of the day, such as the cover image of a 1964 house journal that Hicks presents – featuring a model dressed in half a bikini and a strategically placed magazine (left). This is unpleasantly indicative of male dominance of the industry by this period, when computing was seen as an attractive technological “train set” for young male workers. Sadly, sexism in the computer industry did not end with the 1960s. As late as the 1980s, “professional” trade shows in the UK still used scantily clad young women as marketing gimmicks on their stands – where they were subject to a range of demeaning duties. I know, because I was there. Did I know it was wrong? Yes. Did I do anything to stop it? No. Should I have? Obviously. Would I do so if it happened today? I hope so, because even today, the negative impact of lad culture on the industry across the globe is profound and destructive – a challenge that elements of the computing world have been far too slow to address.

In this volume, Hicks has delivered a sophisticated work of scholarship: detailed, insightful, deeply researched – with excellent use of original sources – and supported by extensive notes and references. It is, in many respects, a eulogy to the UK computer industry – a promising national endeavour brought low by a lack of imagination, the petty traditions and concerns of the Establishment, and an entrenched employment model that limited the career progress of half the potential contributors. But the book has a much wider relevance, too, which it would be unwise to understate. Discussing, as it does, the role of profoundly structural gender discrimination in the collapse of technical dominance by a formerly great power, this book makes very uncomfortable reading – on a number of levels.

There are lessons here for any group that thinks that it alone understands how emerging technologies should be managed, how different elements of the population should be labelled and compartmentalised, and especially those who are convinced of their innate right to dominate a social or technical environment. In a world faced with so many obvious threats and challenges, we cannot afford a waste of opportunities on this scale to recur. Our collective future must rely on the recognition and development of skills and talent wherever they are to be found if we are going to optimise the chances of our progress – and, perhaps, survival – as a species.

John Gilbey teaches in the department of computer science, Aberystwyth University.

Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing
By Marie Hicks
MIT Press, 352pp, £32.95
ISBN 9780262035545 and 342926 (e-book)
Published 13 April 2017

The author

Marie Hicks
MIT Press

Marie Hicks, assistant professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Is there anything about her that marks her out as a Bostonian? 

“That’s a great question – and one that’s difficult to answer because it asks me to rethink what I take for granted. I would say that folks from that area are perhaps a bit more sceptical by nature and tend to have a bit of an independent streak. I certainly think that may have encouraged my tendency to be critical of authority or of situations that seemed unjust. I will also say that I attended public (state-run) schools and had amazing teachers. The history teacher I had in my first and second year of high school was the reason I became a historian –both because he was a fantastic teacher and also because he used his subject to stand up for groups who had been marginalised in history and still were in the present.” 

As a child, Hicks recalls being a tomboy who “spent a lot of time playing in the woods, falling down and off of things. I liked what you might call physics before I understood it was a field of study. I loved seeing how things in the world worked on a physical level. (In some ways it’s odd I became a historian, because I don’t think that’s where my natural talents lie.) I also think I grew up pretty male-identified without knowing it. It was a bit of a shock to realise I was supposed to take on the cultural baggage of ‘being a girl’ at a certain point in mid-elementary school. I think a lot of adults didn’t care, but some certainly tried to police my gender, and, as a part of that, my sexuality.” 

She was, she says, “about 7 or 8 when we got our first computer – an Apple IIe with a green and black display and no peripherals other than a floppy drive. Not even a printer. I wanted an Atari video game system so badly, or any video game system, and the sullen hulk of the Apple IIe was like spit in my eye. I tried to play games on it, tapping away at the keyboard to control the characters onscreen, but it wasn’t very fun. I think my mother wrote a few Fortran programs on it. She had been a computer programmer so that was her idea of fun.”

Her undergraduate years at Harvard University were “pretty miserable, with one foot out the door. I got an excellent education and made some great friends, but Harvard was a far more conservative place than I’d ever imagined. I had a false image of it being a liberal or even radical place, but instead it was establishment with a capital E. It was the first place I saw institutional sexism, racism, and homophobia in action: before that I thought discrimination occurred on a person-to-person basis. I didn’t understand how it was built into the infrastructure of our institutions and how it propagated in complex ways. So my time at Harvard was a very good learning experience on multiple levels, but like many important lessons they were quite painful to learn.”

With this book, she says, she “set out to write a history of the gendered labour flip in early computing. I wanted to figure out why the field went from being full of women to being male-identified. Originally I thought I might even do a comparative study that included the US. But once I got into the National Archives in the UK, I found so much information that contradicted what I thought and what I had been told. I kept following the thread of gendered labour change and eventually, to my surprise, it led me to the implosion of the British computing industry.” 

As to whether she expects her argument to be widely accepted by readers – and particularly men – in the industry, Hicks says, “I think it’s pretty clear from the evidence assembled that my argument isn’t taking any liberties with the facts. So far, people in computing have generally been very accepting of it. On the other hand, the story is a real downer. I could certainly imagine some people not wanting to believe it. It’s depressing. Especially when here in the US we see ourselves making these same mistakes in the present.”

Hicks’ online presence – a clear, engaging and informative website aimed at a range of readers from students to media, an active social media profile, regular blogging, and even a dramatic encounter with a large inflatable chap – adds up to a textbook example of good public engagement. What advice does she have for other academics still hesitant to join the fray, and can she recommend any peers who do it well?

“I was relatively late to the game of ‘publicly engaged online scholarship’,” she admits. “I always had my own website, but I didn’t sign up for Twitter until 2011, and I didn’t get on Facebook until last year. Like a lot of historians of technology, I was (and still am) very circumspect about certain technologies, especially ones that ask you to give up your own autonomy for a chance to ‘join in’ and leverage something bigger than yourself. Those technologies will inevitably be leveraging you to achieve their ends as well. That said, having the ability to casually connect with other scholars on a daily basis via Twitter was a godsend. Academia is quite lonely, because everyone is spread across different institutions around the world.”

Hicks adds: “Some early career researchers who are doing a great job at the whole public engagement thing include Stephanie McKellop (@McKellogs), a graduate student and US historian who has been brave and incisive about talking about how her work relates to present day rape culture. Then there’s Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI) whom I had the privilege of meeting at a Harvard conference on race and the history of science. She is an astrophysicist turned philosopher-historian who has crucial, insightful things to say about racism as something that has fundamentally constructed science as we know it.

She also recommends Luke Stark (@luke_stark), “who works on important issues of digital labour and online privacy, Sawyer Kemp (@hamlethologram) who is a critical digital humanist, and the ladies – Leila A. McNeill (@leilasedai) and Anna Reser (@annanreser) – who run Lady Science (@ladyxscience), a free magazine on the history of women in science and technology. Some more established scholars who work on technology, feminism, history and ethics who are well worth a follow include Safiya Noble (@safiyanoble), Jen Jack Gieseking (@jgieseking), Sarah Roberts (@ubiquity75), Miriam Posner (@miriamkp), and Thomas Mullaney (@tsmullaney).”

If she could change one thing about her institution, IIT, what would it be?

“What an excellent question. One that’s sure to get me in trouble. The thing I would change is that I would have a history department, and a philosophy department, and a media studies department, etc, instead of having one small, catch-all ‘humanities department’ that encompasses all the people doing the work that I value the most. I take my subject seriously and I think it’s worth the resources of a full department, especially at an institution that trains people who will be building infrastructure that we will all live on, in, and around for decades or even centuries to come. Engineers need a good understanding of history, and unfortunately their training often doesn’t allow them to get that.”

What gives her hope?

“That genderqueer and nonbinary trans folks have, in my lifetime, gone from seeming rare and being mostly unseen by mainstream media and society, to dominating the conversation about what gender is. It’s changes like this that I always hoped to see, even before I was old enough to articulate my thoughts on gender. Now that it’s happening, it gives me more hope for the future. All of the folks doing honest, interesting, difficult work around gender and sexuality – personally, professionally, and politically – give me an enormous amount of hope that the rigid, entrenched systems we often take for granted can actually change quite quickly when we yell loudly enough.”

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