Programmed Inequality

Author: Marie Hicks
Publisher: MIT Press
Pages: 352
ISBN:  978-0262535182
Print: 0262535181
Kindle: B01MV05ABA
Audience: General interest
Rating: 4.5
Reviewer: Sue Gee

Subtitled "How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing" this sounds like a fascinating read.

We are all well aware of the gender issues that beset the software industry so the main premise of this book - that the British Government deliberately discriminated against women in computer related roles - is nothing less than shocking.

I was first aware of this book a year ago when its author Marie Hicks wrote an article that appeared on the BBC History Magazine website that prompted me to write Official Discrimination In Britain's Computer Industry.  Obviously I wanted to know more and finally I obtained and read the book, which as I'd imagined was both fascinating and shocking. With hindsight it is obvious that mistakes were made, and repeatedly compounded, at the very highest levels.


This book is obviously a spin-off from a PhD thesis. Because of this it is very detailed and all its facts are backed up with references - which are presented in a Notes section rather than as footnotes which would be distracting to the general reader. There is also a substantial Bibliography and, as befits a book written by a historian, a timeline of key events, covering the period 1939 to 2002. One aspect of the book that makes it all the more readable is the use of photographs, adverts and cartoons.

As with most books that go the extra half mile and provide an Introduction you really should give this your attention. It will alert you to the issues under discussion - which in this case are to do with Britain's highly stratified class structure as well as the way in which women's work was less well paid - and therefore defined to have less requirements and no scope for advancing to higher status roles - and gives you a sweeping overview:

The book starts with the promise of a new technological order during World War II, proceeds to the "technological revolution" of the mid-1960's proclaimed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and ends in the late 1970's when the idea of Britain refashioning itself a a technological superpower had largely crumbled.

The main narrative is organized into five chapters, each covering a specific time period. The first is War Machine: Women's Computing Work and the Underpinnings of the Data-Driven State, 1930-1946 and much of it tells the story of code-breaking at Bletchely Park, something that is well-rehearsed on this site. While we have noted the contribution made by women in our history articles, I'd not realized the numbers involved. From this account, which indicates there were 67 WRNS (women) workers per machine per shift (three per day to keep the machines in continuous operation) there must have been several hundreds, women and they far outnumbered the men, who were crypt analysts or supervisors. Hicks also notes that women were also involved in engineering work at Bletchely Park.

The title of the second chapter, Data Processing in Peacetime: Institutionalizing a Feminized Machine Underclass 1946-1955 succinctly expresses its main message - that the work done by women was deliberately classified as "machine grades". Hicks explains that this:

ensured computing stayed low-paid, feminized and a dead end careerwise within the Civil Service. "Subclerical" women workers could therefore be kept away from the more important and legitimate work of government offices. Women's proficiency with machines meant they largely lost our on equal pay and this wage inequality would alter computing for decades to come.

One of the interesting aspect explored in the third chapter Luck and Labor Shortage: Gender Flux, Professionalism and Growing Opportunities for Computer Workers, 1955-1967 is how women were pictured in marketing materials for computers and the way this perpetuated the idea that computer work was intellectually undemanding.

A shift in the way computers were perceived took place during the sixties, after Prime Minister Harold Wilson's declaration that a white hot technological revolution was required to save Britain's global standing. In the final two chapters The Rise of the Technocrat: How State Attempts to Centralize Power through Computing Went Astray, 1965-1969 and The End of White Heat and the Failure of British Technocracy, 1969-1979 we learn how the British Goverment's dominant need to retain control over computer resources led to a series of mergers that resulted in a single large company ICL, International Computers Limited. Ironically this company was ultimately bought out by Fujitsu in 1998 and its name was dropped in 2002.

In Conclusion:Reassembling the History of Computing around Gender's Formative Influence, Hicks pulls together the strands of the thesis and finally states:

The British case holds applicable lessons for other high-technology workforces ... that continue to evolve today. Skills are not enough to undo gendered labor discrimination, because historically such discrimination has not been about finding people with the most skills.

Sounding a warning note she continues:

Initiatives to get girls, women and people of color to train for STEM jobs cannot undo the the underlying structures of power that have been designed into technological systems over the course of decade.

Returning to the main themes of the book, its final two sentences read:

At its root gender inequality shaped and enabled one of the most important technological changes in Britain's history. In this way a social problem became a technological one that hasted British decline in the twentieth century.

Beak reading indeed and presented with all the facts it is hard to make a convincing counter argument. However, this still makes for an interesting read.   

 See Official Discrimination In Britain's Computer Industry for more.


WordPress Plugin Development, 2nd Ed

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Publisher: Wrox
Pages: 480
ISBN: 978-1119666943
Print: 1119666945
Kindle: B0899MW9CP
Audience: WordPress developers
Rating: 4.5
Reviewer: Kay Ewbank

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Publisher: Apress
Pages: 352
ISBN: 978-1484282298
Print: 1484282299
Kindle: B0B924H21P
Audience: Managers & architects
Rating: 4
Reviewer: Ian Stirk

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Last Updated ( Friday, 14 June 2019 )