The changing role of women in British computing
Historian Marie Hicks considers the role of women in the early British computing industry, their contribution during the Second World War and how their opportunities were curtailed by changing priorities in postwar Britain
Ask anybody about the history of women in computing and they're likely to come up with a few names: Ada Lovelace is a perennial favourite; as is Grace Hopper. A few folks might name other women like Katherine Johnson, Jean Bartik, or Stephanie Shirley. These were all important pioneers in a field that today we think of as male dominated. But what if I were to tell you that these women are not so exceptional as they might seem at first glance? That computing, as a field of endeavour, was feminised work for so long that most young men did not dare go into it for fear of ending up in a career ‘backwater’? This flip from a feminised sphere of work, to one solidly identified as masculine, is a change many still struggle to understand. In my book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing, I explore the period when women disappeared from the field and how their loss affected the fortune of the entire British computing industry.
Women were very much present in the world of computing in Great Britain throughout the early decades of electronic computing and the height of the 'mainframe era' in the 1960s, when massive, room-sized computers were the norm. This was the time that we normally associate with a technological revolution based largely on computerisation. During the period that British prime minister Harold Wilson famously described as the era of “White Heat”, most of the computer operators, programmers, systems administrators, and systems analysts that you were likely to encounter would have been women. Yet by the end of the decade women had largely vanished from the field – and not by choice. The gender flip of computer work was sudden and destructive.
The early role of a computer programmer
In 1959 a computer programmer and operator faced a very hectic year. This particular worker needed to programme, maintain, operate, and test all of the computers in a major computing centre doing critical work for the central government. These computers didn’t just crunch numbers or automate low-level office work; the programs they ran formed the infrastructure for national affairs and policy. Tax collection, road repairs, and even economic forecasting that the government relied upon to make long-term policy decisions, relied on the work done by computers. In addition to all of this, the worker also had to train two new hires at the same time.
These new hires didn't have any of the required technical skills, but would gradually be brought up to speed over the course of a year of training. Once they were trained, the new hires stepped up into management roles, while their trainer was demoted into an assistantship below them. That their trainer was a woman, and that the new hires were both young men, was not a coincidence. Nor was it coincidental that, as a woman, she had the technical skills and know-how for a job like this, while they did not.
Before computing became electronic, women were tapped as the ideal workers for what was considered rote, mundane calculation work. Even though this work required advanced mathematics knowledge – everything from spheroidal trigonometry, to calculus, to accounting, to codebreaking – it was perceived as unintellectual and, because women were doing it, largely unimportant. These women were called ‘computers’: before a computer was a machine, it was a job classification, like ‘accountant’ or ‘baker’. When electromechanical and then electronic computers began to automate this work, women carried over: operating, programming, troubleshooting, and even assembling the hardware of these new machines.
During the Second World War, women of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) assembled and operated the Colossus codebreaking computers – the first digital, electronic, programmable computers in the world. The Colossus computers were incredibly important, not just in computing but for the balance of international politics: their deployment let the Allies know where and when to land on D-Day in 1944 by breaking German codes faster than ever before, and turned the tide of the war.
After the Second World War, the cutting-edge electronic Colossus computers were kept secret by the British government, out of fear that revealing them might aid enemies in developing similar technology and compromise Britain’s national security. Most of their operators returned to other jobs in civilian life, but the women operating electromechanical computers at Bletchley Park carried over into the civil service and jobs in industry, into what today we would consider to be cutting-edge new jobs. At the dawn of the digital age, and even well into the height of the mainframe era, jobs in computing had been so thoroughly feminised that they simply weren't considered 'good' jobs for men.
By the mid to late 1960s, that was starting to change, not because the work was any different, but because the perception of the work was changing. Computers, instead of being seen as intimidating behemoths that were only good for technical work, were now becoming integrated into every part of the work of government and industry, and it was becoming clear they would shape the infrastructure of business and government to an ever-greater extent in the decades to come. As their great power became more apparent, low-status women workers were no longer seen as appropriate for this type of work, even though they had all the technical skills to do the jobs.
Within government and the public sector, these women formed an underclass of highly technically trained, and operationally critical technology workers – dubbed "the machine grades" within the civil service. In the mid-1950s, when the British government finally assented to paying its own workers equal pay for equal work, the majority of women working in the civil service did not get equal pay, specifically because these were concentrated in these machine grades. Although there were rarely-used men’s pay scales in the machine grades, with which the women’s wages should have been “equalised”, the government’s rationale was that women had been doing this work for so long, and in such great majority, that their lower rate of pay had now become the standard market rate for the jobs. As such, unlike all of the other women working for the government, women doing technical work with computers would not have their pay raised up to the level of the men’s pay scales for the jobs.
As the computerisation of the nation advanced, with computers becoming more important to the functioning of government and industry, this growing feminised machine underclass formed the infrastructure for many critical activities, from taxation, to scientific research, to economic forecasting. Women programmed and operated computers that ran the new VAT and ‘pay-as-you-earn’ taxation systems that enabled the welfare state and the NHS to be funded. Women also wrote software for prestige cutting-edge, international projects like the Concorde. And yet, the low status of the workers, and the fact that they were essentially forbidden from rising into management or managing male staff, meant there was a complete mismatch between the growing power of these technical experts and the way they were treated. As computers grew in power, having an underclass of highly-trained technical workers who were not aligned with the interests and goals of management was a potentially disastrous situation. At one point, for instance, the women who coded the data for the new VAT system went on strike due to poor working conditions, delaying this critical government project significantly while ministers scrambled to understand what was happening.
'The removal of women'
So, the government began a decade-long effort to remove women workers from these newly-important technical positions and replace them with management-minded young men: people who could go from the boardroom to the machine room and manage computers as easily as people. The only problem was that men like this did not exist and few young men with good career prospects ahead of them were keen to get into what was perceived as a feminised backwater. Yet, because women were not only not expected to stay long enough to become managers, but were not expected to manage men at all, the idea of technical women working their way up to fill these roles was out of the question. Most businesses went out of their way to ensure that gendered hierarchies always put male managers on top, and the supposedly meritocratic civil service itself was the worst offender, carefully recategorising women and men workers into different job categories even when they were doing the same work. Irrespective of skills, job categories ensured that more men remained in positions of power while most women remained in functional roles, regardless of how they might have shown themselves to be capable.
This was how Britain got one of its most important and successful computing pioneers, software tycoon Stephanie Shirley. Shirley began her career in the 1950s at the prestigious Dollis Hill research station, London, in the Post Office doing computational work, the same place where British engineer Tommy Flowers had designed the Colossus during the war. Britain continued to be very strong in computing, matching or anticipating American breakthroughs, and it was within this exciting context that Stephanie Shirley went to work. Yet Shirley found herself unable to get ahead, recalling in her memoir how she was denied promotions that she had earned. When she found out that her superiors were outright refusing to consider promoting her because she was a woman, she left and, finding the same discrimination in industry that she had found in government work, created her own freelance software company out of her home in the early 1960s.
Shirley’s successful business model gives some clue as to why the treatment of women in computing was bound to create major problems for the industry. When setting up, Shirley had little capital and no place to work, other than her home. But she did have a major advantage: all of the other highly trained and talented women computing workers who were similarly being pushed out of their jobs, either through outright discrimination or through government and industry’s unwillingness to provision any kind of maternity leave, childcare, or flexible family-friendly working hours. These women were all looking for work.
By offering them the ability to work from home (most programming was still done with pencil and paper at this point, before being tested using expensive computer time) and work flexible hours, Shirley created a powerhouse of women technology workers who went on to carry out programming for critical projects in government and industry. For instance, the programming for the Concorde’s black box flight recorder was managed and completed entirely by a remote workforce of women, working from home.
Meanwhile, government and industry were unable to train or retain young male technocrats in great enough numbers to stem their losses. As women’s computing talent and expertise was literally pushed out the door, women like Shirley – who used the name ‘Steve’ professionally in order to cut through the sexism of the industry – benefited. However, industry – and the nation as a whole – lost out. Shirley’s company could only employ a small fraction of all the women being removed from their jobs, and this huge mass of wasted talent and potential took a toll.
By 1968 the government had become convinced that it could no longer function by trying to get more young men into computing: the numbers simply weren’t there. As a result, they decided to approach the problem from a different angle: if there weren’t enough men for these jobs, then the number of jobs needed to be reduced. In other words, they needed to find a way to do the same amount of computing work with fewer computer workers. This meant bigger machines – more massive, powerful mainframes that could be run from a centralised perch within government. So the government, on the advice of the then-Minister of Technology Anthony Benn, decided to force all of the remaining, viable British computer companies to merge into one large computer company that could provide them with the sort of massive, centralised mainframe technologies they needed. In 1968, ICL (International Computers Limited) was born, and tasked with giving the government – and by extension, the nation – the machines that allow Britain to function with its newly-minimised and masculinised computer labour force.
Unfortunately, this change occurred right at a time when the mainframe was on the way out, and smaller mainframes as well as decentralised computer systems were beginning to become the norm. By the time ICL delivered the asked-for product line in the mid 1970s – the highly technically advanced 2900 series of massive, powerful mainframes – the British government no longer wanted it, and neither did other potential customers. As the government realised their mistake (though not the underlying sexism that had caused it), they quickly turned away from ICL, torpedoing what was left of the British computing industry.
History shows us that the sexism that produced this technical labour shortage in the UK was a highly constructed and artificial feature – neither a natural evolution of the field, nor a reflection of women’s talent, goals, and interests. Discrimination in computing is not new: it is not a matter of simply getting “more women into computing” but addressing the structural, programmed inequalities that have been there from the start. Then, as now, these hierarchies were meant to preserve the powerful social and political structures that electronic computing was, since its inception in wartime, meant to serve.
A close re-examination of computing history shows us that the “computer revolution” was never really meant to be a revolution in any sort of social or political sense. People who were not seen as worthy of wielding power over men and nations were deliberately excluded, even when they had the required technical skills, and to a great extent, that process continues today. As we continue to see the negative effects of discrimination in Silicon Valley, like social media platforms that can give greater visibility to white supremacy and amplify hate speech – with reverberating effects on national and even global political events – it’s worth looking back and remembering what happened to the nation that invented the computer, and how gender discrimination played a role in its fall from grace.
Marie Hicks is a historian and professor of history of technology. You can read more about the history of women in British computing in her book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologistsand Lost its Edge in Computing (MIT Press, 2017). Visit her on the web at www.mariehicks.net