Gender, Pop Culture and Politics in Technology: Lessons From the Past

Marie Hicks is a historian of technology, gender, and Modern Europe. Her research work lies at the intersection of labor feminization and technology, and how discrimination against women leads to harmful consequences for society as a whole. She is an Assistant Professor of History at the Illinois Institute of Technology and will be joining the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s History Department in the fall of 2017

A study published by UNESCO in 2015 stated that globally, women represented only one-third of all researchers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields as of 2011. Yet, computing was a field heavily influenced by women in the early days of electronic computers.  Now, in order to increase gender diversity in the male dominated tech sector, it is becoming ever more important for policymakers to seek ways to improve inclusion of women in STEM careers.

Chicago Policy Review sat down with Marie Hicks, Assistant Professor of History at the Illinois Institute of Technology, to speak with her about her latest book, “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge In Computing,” published in January 2017. Her research shows that Britain and its computing industry faced a variety of negative consequences by systematically discriminating against women technologists during and after World War II.

What inspired you to write a book on the history of gender discrimination in technology? Why examine Britain’s history, in particular?

I used to work as a UNIX systems administrator right after I got out of college, and the gender divide there seemed odd. All of the younger folks my age were mostly men, whereas our bosses, who were from an older generation, were women. We’d all have conversations about this and our boss would try to impress upon us that there used to be more women in the field. It got me wondering about how this gendered labor flip occurred. My mother had actually been a computer programmer, but it wasn’t until I was older that I thought about the historical circumstances of gender discrimination in technology.

In terms of focusing on the U.K., I thought there was an interesting story there. Britain had the first digital, electronic, programmable computers – the Colossus computers – which helped the Allies greatly. The incredibly fast codebreaking they provided ensured the success of the D-Day landings. Meanwhile, the best electronic computing technology the U.S. had was still just in its testing stages. After the war, the British continued to be at the forefront of computing. Through the fifties and sixties, they seemed poised to compete on a global scale. But by the 1970s, their computer industry was all but extinct.

Your book, “Programmed Inequality”, discusses the ways in which gender discrimination against women in technology in Britain led to disastrous consequences for the British industry and for the country as a whole. Did other countries – such as the U.S. – also face this problem following WWII? More specifically, why is it that the world knows so much about Grace Hopper, who worked on the Mark I computer for the U.S. Navy at Harvard University, and so little about Joan Clarke, who helped Alan Turing and his team crack the Enigma code to decrypt German messages at Bletchley Park in Britain during WWII?

Yes, the U.S.A faced this same problem. U.S. society was no paragon of gender or racial equality, obviously. But the much larger size of the U.S. labor force insulated it; we didn’t feel the most damaging effects of self-imposed labor shortages caused by discrimination because there were far more people to draw from. Yet, as Margot Lee Shetterly’s great new book “Hidden Figures” shows, discrimination in the U.S. nearly cost us the Space Race. We lost the early stages of that race to the USSR, a nation that had been ravaged by WWII. Given that, we really should have been able to do better than pull out a late win in this technological race. The fact that we didn’t shows that we were not immune from similar effects of discriminatory practices. 

In response to why we know more about Grace Hopper than Joan Clarke, part of this is because Clarke – like all women (and men) at Bletchley – was forced to work under the strictest secrecy. Even decades after the war, the penalty for committing treason by talking about state secrets like top secret war work was death. Meanwhile Hopper saw herself as a computing evangelist, and used her platform in the Navy to go around talking about computing to all who would listen. She created a larger-than-life legacy for herself and so that’s how we see her today. But, the most important thing to remember is that both Clarke and Hopper were exceptions to the rule – women who were able to squeak into male-identified areas enough to elevate their status far above the much larger mass of women doing computing work during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Those are the women we should be paying attention to, because their experiences are what defined computing. So that’s what my book tries to do.

“Programmed Inequality” includes a couple of advertisements that show women involved either in jobs perceived as low skill, such as typewriting, or depicted as sex objects. How important a role did advertising play in reinforcing the stereotypical image of women in technology?

Advertising played a very important role. There are lots of ads that talk about computer operation and programming as deskilled, and that convince employers they don’t have to get special staff for it. So you end up seeing women working with cutting edge technology in these new fields not being paid on par with their skills, and not being accorded the respect or titles men later got for doing the same work. 

One of my favorite ads from the sixties talks about how the computer being advertised can be programmed and controlled by a typist. So, she is doing programming, but she doesn’t get to be a programmer – only a typist. Who did the work defined how it was seen more than the actual content of the work did. Men started to get pushed into the field, and women pushed out, not because the content of the work changed but because managers decided to start hiring differently once they came to understand computer work as more important than they’d previously thought. Once people at the highest levels of government and industry realized the kind of power technical workers could wield, they no longer considered the jobs to be suitable for women.

An ad showing how women’s computer work was devalued by the job categories used to describe women’s work. Advertisement in Office Methods and Machines Magazine, 1967.

While more women are graduating with STEM majors today than ever before, there’s also a rise in the number of incidences of discrimination against women in the tech sector. The story by Susan Fowler in her treatment at Uber is one such example. The rise of the “bro culture” in tech, primarily led my men, is also very much evident. What similarities do you find between the environment in tech today and the environment that was prevalent in tech after WWII?

Well, there’s certainly a difference, but as I noted above, a lot of similarities remain. That is because these technological and professional structures have been actively designed to discriminate against certain groups, all the while claiming to be meritocratic. So for decades, the problem was barely addressed because many people – and particularly those in power – failed to even perceive what was problematic. And to a large extent that’s still the case. Few women who’ve worked in male dominated fields were surprised by Fowler’s story, awful as what happened to her was. Only people who have not had to deal with this had the luxury of being shocked. This sort of thing is a common reality for many working women today and we just keep our heads down and try to deal with it the best we can, because we know our institutional leadership isn’t on our side, and that – for instance – speaking up about a colleague’s or a superior’s racist or sexist behavior will just make us look like we are the problem because we’re speaking out. I had a colleague make some incredibly racist remarks and when I asked him to stop he actually screamed, “You’re the problem – you’re always looking for trouble!” right in my face. If it weren’t so sad it would be funny.

What, in your view, should be the role of individuals, private organizations, and the government in providing equal opportunities for women in STEM fields?

Laws, court cases, and government regulation have been essential in starting to undo some of the discrimination that structures our society, workforce and technologies. Supreme Court decisions integrated schools and workplaces, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tried to enforce equal pay and opportunity for women in the workforce, Title IX ensures educational opportunities for people irrespective of their sex. All of these things have made huge material changes to how Americans live and pursue happiness. But obviously they haven’t gone far enough. And instead of pressing further against discrimination, the current federal government and many state governments are rolling back these civil rights measures and actively dismantling the bodies that had been created to enforce them. The profound ignorance of history, or the disregard of it, is one common denominator shared by many of the people involved in these destructive efforts. This is one of the reasons I wrote this book, and one of the reasons I think narratives like this are sorely needed in our current situation.


Faraz Ahmed
Faraz Ahmed is the Executive Editor at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in using data journalism and civic tech for social good. When he’s not writing articles or computer programs, he could be seen hanging out at art museums or checking out new coffee shops in Chicago. He graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences with a BSc in Management Science.

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