Book review: Programmed Inequality

Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks is a history of early computing in the UK, starting right at the beginning. The book concentrates on the experiences and conditions for women in tech, and their changing status. Much like Recoding Gender by Janet Abbate (which I read recently but didn’t, for some reason, blog about) it looks at the way the computing profession is first invented and then changes over time, influenced by and influencing women’s position in tech.

The simple tale is one that’s been told a few times…

1940s-50s – to begin with, computer was a word that referred to someone who computed, probably a woman (think “Hidden Figures” and the rows of women calculating things for NASA, or think about the wartime Bletchley Park Women of Station X). These women created and encoded data, manipulated it, and fed it into other systems (possibly computational).

1950s-early 60s: Then, as things became more automated, women worked as operators and punch card people; this often involved some programming. With increasing complexity to computer systems, and increasing numbers of computers, a managerial class was needed to oversee all these women. Obviously this can’t be made up of women who know how the computers work as if you promote them, they’ll go off and have babies. Also we wouldn’t want to give the women the high powered jobs, right? So a middle manager class is invented of men, to look after these women in tech.

1960s-70s: There are thousands of jobs but for women IT is still a trap. Men are being trained and fast tracked into executive officer roles, supervising the skilled tech workforce of women. Operator jobs remain feminised, but have little opportunity for promotion; young women entering computing are expected to either stay on a junior grade or leave and get married. Some women escape this dual-pronged trap – managing to stay in the profession and move into management, or invent their own way of being in tech (Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley being the obvious example, setting up a company staffed by women working from home).

Some of the detail of the way in which the UK government frankly ballsed up the development of the UK tech industry echo things I learned in A Computer Called LEO. This is a very different book, though. LEO is a popular history book, wheras this book is a serious piece of historical scholarship. So, where Programmed Inequality really stands out is in the detail. I was constantly surprised by facts about the British civil service and how it treated women, with details about equal pay acts and how they’ve been avoided, with historical expectations and overt sex segregation of jobs. Surprising facts and quotes included …

  • In 1953, women’s pay scales for machine grades went from £385 to £460, and mens pay scales started at £460 rising in larger increments to £570. Women were downgraded, often, not to anger men, however this pay scale ensured that a man wouldn’t be paid less than a woman no matter how long either of them had been in post.
  • In 1955, the Aeronautical Research Council, discussing the future of computing, wrote “If a career path could be provided, it may be possible to make computing into an attractive career for boys”.
  • The clear and openly stated assumption that a woman with a job would leave it upon marriage is something I’d heard about, but to see it written down explicitly remains a surprise to me.
  • The ways in which organisations will manoeuvre in order to work around equal pay legislation is again something I find alarming if unsurprising. The way they behaved before the introduction of equal pay legislation is jaw-dropping.

If you’re interested in women in tech, and the UK story in particular, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. As I said earlier, it’s not a popular history/popular science book, but a piece of serious scholarship. This means it’s not as easy a read as some books on women in tech. For me, the effort paid off though!

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this review! I’m about halfway through Programmed Inequality. One of the important properties of the book is centralising the “normal” jobs in computing that are done by women, including the (first explicitly, then by default) all-female machine operator roles in the civil service.

    Too much conversation about EDI in computing acknowledges women if they are Grace Hopper, gay men if they are Alan Turing, trans people if they are Sophie Wilson. It’s time to acknowledge the huge labour costs of computing and the biases therein.

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