In the 1940s, Great Britain led the world in electronic computing. They were responsible for developing the world’s first digital electronic programmable computer; it helped crack enemy codes to aid the Allies in winning World War II. Three decades later, Great Britain’s computing industry was nearly extinct.
In the new book, “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge In Computing,” (MIT Press/ 2017) historian Marie Hicks argues this decline was due, in large part, to the government’s systematic neglect of women in the workforce. Until the 1960s, women powered the technology industry, but during the height of the Cold War, Britain systematically pushed women out of computing jobs to replace them with men who they considered to be “management material.”
Host Frank Stasio talks with Marie Hicks about her research and how the legacy of labor feminization impacts the technology industry today. Hicks discusses her book at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham tonight at 7 p.m.
On how women became the driving force of the British tech industry
Nobody really wanted to do this machine work. Technical work wasn’t very high prestige for a long time. It was seen as almost working class. There was this term the “industrialization of the office,” so if women were going to be in the industry doing ‘light industry,’ then why not bring them in to run these machines in an office context. So they weren’t even really seen as white-collar workers.In the early decades of electronic computing, and prior to that, women were doing everything from data input to programming. But the interesting thing is they were almost called “operators,’ even if they were doing programming. So we have to look at the history in a critical light because they didn’t always get the titles that we might have expected.
On why the British technology industry collapsed
The British were technologically very very advanced. But, as is often the case, he best technology doesn’t always win. It’s about how it gets implemented. And one of the things the British do that maybe initially seemed unrelated is they systematically push women out of the field. And in a country with a small labor force in a nascent field, this is really a big problem because the women were actually the technical ones. The field of computing was feminized up until the 1940s and ‘50s. There was this huge fear from people at the top of government and industry that they didn’t have the “right sort of people” in charge of these machines that were now being seen as newly important. Around the 1950s and 1960s there’s a realization that the people who know how to wield computer’s power...they’re going to actually be the ones who should be making big decisions about how companies are run, about how the government, the nation is run. And they’re not really too keen to have low-level women, technical workers in those roles.
On the impact of the British government's policy change
After the war, as electronic computing starts to enter offices, women are still doing the jobs. There isn’t just a flight of women from the field after the war. But what happens is that managers, for instance, start to say, ‘okay you’re going to train new people to do this work.’ and after for instance a woman trains her replacements essentially, she’s demoted oftentimes to an assistantship position, below people who know far less than she does. [...]The impact early on is not that bad because...women don’t leave at that point...but they’re not rising. They’re not allowed to basically get on these new career tracks that are being established for computer workers-for computer professionals now.
On how women's role in the tech industry evolved in the United States
It was very similar in terms of discrimination, but the US had something that was very, very important, and that was a much larger population, and a much larger labor force … so the US wasn’t as badly affected by having a lot of the same discriminatory policies in place. If you look at the space race for instance and you look at how early on the soviets are beating the United States, well that should never have happened given our relative positions coming out of world war 2. Margot Shetterly’s terrific book that talks about black women workers at NASA. It shows how discrimination really held the united states back, especially held NASA back. These women were incredible, and if they had been able to contribute fully, just think how much farther.
On whether or not things are changing
In some respects they are getting better for certain women. In some respects they are not. I don’t really think that competition is going to save us, because i do think that global competition often has the effect of dragging folks down to basically the lowest level. And I am a little bit skeptical about this idea of the STEM Pipeline that we hear a lot of the time. That if we can just train enough women to take up these jobs, eventually, they’ll make it through the pipeline and end up at the highest levels of industry. That's’ been going on for decades now, and what we’re seeing is the pipeline leaks in the middle. And people of color, women, other minorities, really don’t ever make it to the top in large numbers.
On the biggest roadblocks to change
We have this fiction of meritocracy. We want to believe that the best and brightest rise to the top, and it’s simply not true. Privilege, class, gender, race play a huge role in where people end up in society. I think there’s a real tension between getting the best people into these jobs and maintaining power. Governments, corporations, they all have specific hierarchies and power structure that they’re very invested in because that’s how they function. That’s how they keep going. They don’t want to change that very much because if they do, then they're going to have to rethink everything about their existence, essentially.