Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing

By Marie Hicks. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2017. 352 pp. $40 Hardcover. ISBN: 9780262035545


This well-researched new volume by historian Marie Hicks connects sexist labor practices with the failure of the British computing industry. It will be essential to readers interested in the history of computing, information work, and gender and computing. Hicks examines the technical work of women from the 1930s to the 1970s and shows how the Anglo-American stereotype that men have an aptitude for computing has been naturalized through a deliberate structuring and devaluing of work done by women. The book is not a history of computing that focuses on key individuals, a machine, an organization, or a network, but instead focuses on a gendered class of laborers “who often could not, or would not, take on the neat identity of ‘programmer’ but who did the work nonetheless," (17). These women “exist as much on a discursive level as they do on the level of an embodied labor force,” (233). This approach, argues Hicks, helps to show “gender as a formative category in technological organization and design,” (16). This dense story of a gendered class of workers is organized chronologically and embedded into administrative history, history of gender roles, and business computing history, offering fascinating insights for different readers. Thus, this review only scratches the surface of this work.

 The first chapter, “War Machines: Women’s Computing Work and the Underpinnings of the Data-Driven State, 1930-1946,” describes the vast and complex electromechanical and codebreaking work undertaken by women around the Second World War. The state’s labor needs were so extreme that work was open to women that would have ordinarily excluded them. Hicks describes the material work practices of these women in detail, demonstrating that though work done by women was believed to be passive, rote and deskilled, compared to the jobs of men, it required knowledge and expertise. Classified World War II archives allowed these myths to perpetuate as the women who worked in these operations were sworn to secrecy, and honorably but tragically never divulged the content of their work. When the war ended, this pool of feminized labor trained to take on the electromechanical work of the modern office faced the “marriage bar,” which required women to retire upon marriage. Though repealed in 1946, the marriage bar was institutionalized in the formation of specific labor categories for women, which offered little in terms of a career path under the general assumption that women would leave work for family.

This book about gender and computing is embedded in a history of government administration–computers allowed for an expansion of the state, and vice versa. Readers who don’t have a passion for administrative history might find chapters two and four particularly challenging—both take the readers deep into the bureaucracy of British government and track how computing work was classified, reclassified, and paid for—but these details are essential to understanding how computing work was feminized and devalued. Chapter two, “Data Processing in Peacetime: Institutionalizing a Feminized Machine Underclass,” details how the state set up the “machine grade” labor class, which was paid less than other grades, had little opportunity for advancement, and was staffed by women. As the need for machine labor increased with the burgeoning but financially strained British welfare state, so too did the need for this feminized labor class of low-paid machine operators. The creation of this class, and a limited public budget, created incentives to hire women, and even convert work into tasks that could be done by machine grade employees. Meanwhile, Hicks explains that while a complex fight for equal pay for equal work was underway in Britain, for machine grade workers it did not make a difference because they worked in an all-women labor class – there were no men in this class for them to be equal to. Feminizing machine had other effects – it devalued machine work for men and women in the larger labor market and made it difficult to increase the labor supply and retain workers in the field of computing.

Chapter three of this book, “Luck and Labor Shortage: Gender Flux, Professionalization, and Growing Opportunities for Computer Workers, 1955-1967”, will be the most accessible to students and researchers interested in the intersection of culture, gender and computing as it examines experiences around computing from multiple, contrasting angles. First, Hicks contrasts the British state’s vision to transform society with computing and automation with what actually happened: a “reconsolidation of traditional hierarchies – not a revolution at all,” (101). She notes that the imaginary of automated computed obscured the complexities of the actual human labor needed to make the machines work. Next, Hicks turns to British computer industry advertising that articulated a young, feminized, and rote vision of computing labor. One of the most intriguing parts of this chapter examines how Britain attempted to export not just computers, but gendered labor practices and a “gendered imperial gaze” (121). Finally, Hicks contrasts the discursive formations of computing work articulated by the state vision and corporate advertising with the experiences and words of women laborers.

As the status and importance of computing rose, so too did the urgency of hiring men to do the work that women had been performing. Chapter four, “The Rise of the Technocrat,” examines how women workers’ experience and talents were wasted and overlooked because the state’s modernization program attempted to install men into high-level and higher-paying computing-related positions, even requiring women to train their bosses. “The rationale for changing the composition of the computer workforce had little to do with talent and everything to do with prestige,” (159). In the midst of the labor shortages, the government, as a large and influential buyer of computing equipment, also allowed for consolidation of British computer manufacturing competitors.

Chapter five, “The End of White Heat,” examines how the British computing industry and the state, now firmly intertwined, shaped computing and bureaucratic organization to jointly centralize power in the hands of educated men. And the major player in the British computing industry, ICL, in its push to meet the needs of the state, failed to keep up with other demands in the broader computing marketplace. The slowdowns created by strikes of computing laborers made the problems of centralization all too apparent. Issues with training and retaining male workers continued to plague the British government, but as the 1970s wore on, the government continued to ignore the pool of women that they already employed. The results were disastrous:

“[The state’s actions] … hurt the British economy, hindered the functioning of the state, undercut the health of national high technology labor markets through deskilling women technologists and destroyed the British computer industry. The state increased gender stratification using computers; it used new technological tools to strengthen the position of those at the top of social and political hierarchies at the expense of economic and social progress.” (224)

Through this history, Hicks’s book highlights a fascinating contradiction: today people valorize information work that is “close to the metal” as inherently masculine. But only seventy years ago this work was considered inherently feminine. Among the recent, horrifying stories of sexual harassment which have surfaced in Silicon Valley, is a lawsuit against Google which alleges that women were systematically discouraged from pursuing particular types of jobs that were construed as masculine, and highly esteemed and rewarded. Hicks has provided crucial background for how gendered categories of work discipline both men and women and can be naturalized, and the immense cost of these ingrained biases. Programmed Inequality is an important book that deserves a place in syllabi next to other works in gender and computing work history .

Megan Finn, University of Washington, School of Information