Women used to be present in computer work in higher percentages than they are today. Ever wonder what happened? Turns out that the story of gender and the progress of computing are a lot more tightly linked than we once thought…
by Mar Hicks (MIT Press, January 2017)
In 1944, Britain led the world in electronic computing. By 1974, the British computer industry was all but extinct. What happened in the intervening thirty years holds lessons for all postindustrial superpowers. As Britain struggled to use technology to retain its global power, the nation’s inability to manage its technical labor force hobbled its transition into the information age.
In Programmed Inequality, Mar Hicks explores the story of labor feminization and gendered technocracy that undercut British efforts to computerize. That failure sprang from the government’s systematic neglect of its largest trained technical workforce–simply because they were women. Women were a hidden engine of growth in high technology from World War II to the 1960s. As computing experienced a gender flip, becoming male-identified in the 1960s and 1970s, labor problems grew into structural ones and gender discrimination caused the nation’s largest computer user—the civil service and sprawling public sector—to make decisions that were disastrous for the British computer industry and the nation as a whole.
Drawing on recently opened government files, personal interviews, and the archives of major British computer companies, Programmed Inequality takes aim at the fiction of technological meritocracy. With over 30 images–including period photographs and cartoons–the reader gets a feel not only for what happened, but the cultural texture of the time. Hicks explains why, even today, possessing technical skill is not enough to ensure women will rise to the top in science and technology fields. Programmed Inequality shows how the disappearance of women from the field had grave macroeconomic consequences for Britain, and why the United States risks repeating those errors in the twenty-first century.
Reviews of Programmed Inequality:
“This is a fascinating account of how the UK civil service gradually but deliberately pushed women out of computing technology jobs over a three-decade period. It’s one of the best researched and most compelling examples of the negative impact of gender and class discrimination on a country’s economy.”
—Maria M. Klawe, President, Harvey Mudd College
“Mar Hicks’s well-researched look into Britain’s computer industry, and its critical dependence on the work of female computer programmers, is a welcome addition to our body of knowledge of women’s historical employment in science and technology. Hicks confidently shows that the professional mobility of women in computing supports the success of the industry as a whole, an important lesson for scholars and policymakers seeking ways to improve inclusion in STEM fields.”
—Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
“This is a fascinating and disturbing account of women’s roles in the British computing industry’s rise and fall. In its analyses of job classifications and campaigns for equal pay, this study examines relationships between gender and computing in far greater detail than previous accounts. Deeply researched and persuasively argued, Hicks’s study of computing in Britain complements existing accounts of women’s exclusion from the US computing industry—and offers important lessons for the tech industries of both nations today.”
—Jennifer S. Light, Department Head and Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, MIT
“Programmed Inequality is a model of socially informed history that reveals deep linkages between technological modernization and profound cultural commitments to gender binaries and inequities. It defies any intention we may still hold to interpret the development of computing as distinct from matters of power, identity, and democratic participation.”
—Amy E. Slaton, Professor of History, Drexel University; author of Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line
“Computing is widely recognized as a male-dominated field, but how did it come to be this way? In Programmed Inequality, Mar Hicks illuminates how structural discrimination shaped the composition of the British computer workforce and created lasting gender inequalities. Clearly written and elegantly argued, Hicks’s book is a must-read for those hoping to understand how ideas about gender, class, and sexuality became embedded in computing and how government practices and new technologies worked together to undermine social and economic equality.”
—Eden Medina, Associate Professor of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington; author of Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile
About the Author: Mar Hicks is an associate professor of history of technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Their work focuses on how gender and sexuality bring hidden technological dynamics to light, and how women’s experiences change the core narrative of the history of computing. Hicks teaches courses on modern European history, the history of technology, gender and sexuality studies, STS, and disasters. Hicks received their MA and Ph.D. from Duke University and their BA from Harvard University. Before entering academia, they worked as a UNIX systems administrator.
For more about their work see marhicks.com.