Book review: ‘Programmed Inequality’ by Marie Hicks

The story of how Britain discarded women technologists and lost its edge in computing.

As a battered Britain emerged from the Second World War, it had one big potential advantage: work on electronic computers that had contributed to the Allied victory put it in the vanguard of what was to become one of the world’s biggest markets for equipment and services.

Barely 30 years later, however, the British computer industry was all but extinct despite massive support from the government. Why that happened, and how the UK let its lead slip so quickly, should be a lesson for all aspiring post-industrial superpowers who want to avoid the same fate.

‘Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing’ by Marie Hicks (The MIT Press, £14.95, ISBN 9780262535182), a perspective on a critical chapter in the history of computing which looks at the social pressures that shaped the industry’s labour force rather than large-scale business and economic factors, offers a novel explanation. It was the genderisation of the sector, Marie Hicks argues, which was responsible for Britain’s decline.

The embryonic post-war computer industry was dominated by women. Fictional retellings of codebreaking work at Bletchley Park tend to focus on great individual achievements by a small number of male scientists and engineers, but thousands of women were involved and for the next decade the job of working with computers was largely a female occupation. Nor did a tide of men sweep back from war looking to replace them. In its early years, this was a role that was perceived very much as one of a machine operator, however skilled.

Things gradually changed during the course of the 1950s. As men were favoured for the management roles within IT companies, and computing evolved into a more aspirational career, the thousands of women who had pioneered the industry were replaced. Historically it appears a gradual process of evolution but, as Hicks makes clear, to those who were sidelined the gender flip was “arbitrary, sudden and unfortunate”.

With hindsight, ditching a skilled and experienced workforce – for whatever reason – can be seen as unwise. In the context of a business evolving as rapidly as this one did it looks foolish, particularly when one of the motivations, as Hicks convincingly argues, was that a social pressure for men to be given jobs with responsibility that allowed them to be the breadwinner meant most women had limited career prospects.

Labour 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.

Those who were involved at the time may have alternative reasons for the decline of UK computing, and explanations for why women were marginalised. ‘Programmed Inequality’ demolishes many of the more obvious arguments, explaining, for example, how it was a lack of opportunities and not interest that resulted in the dearth of female technologists which is still a problem for many sections of industry.

This fascinating book, whose reproductions of cheesy computer advertisements from the 1960s and 70s do almost as much as the words to prove its point, is both a fascinating read and a cautionary tale. One of the reasons the story it tells was able to happen was because few could foresee how significant information technology and processing would become. At a point in time where we may believe we’ve learnt from the past and can be confident enough of our forecasts to prevent that happening again, it’s worth remembering that that’s probably what Britain’s post-war decision makers thought as well.

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