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  • Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing
  • Carol Colatrella (bio)
Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Edited by Thomas J. Misa. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Pp. xv+306. $29.95.

Gender Codes acknowledges a longstanding social problem affecting many Western industrialized countries: women are not proportionally represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Linda Shafer writes in the foreword that “women are practically absent from the historical literature on computing. They made significant contributions to all segments of the computing industry, yet they had to fight for respect and funding, and too often they lost” (p. xi). Other contributors point to the most significant issue: too few women are currently entering computing because they recognize significant obstacles constraining their participation.

This stellar collection outlines barriers and facilitators affecting women’s participation and recognition. Essays describe the ways that educational and career outcomes for women in computing vary, depending on field, academic rank, national bureaucracy, cultural stereotypes, and historical circumstances. Authors analyze diverse situations in which computing technology is managed by men, while being deployed by women, and how women’s work in computing is undervalued financially and historically. Like other books about gender and computing, Gender Codes offers recommendations to transform environments. Significantly, the book’s key insight is that media, biased individuals, and culture in its institutional and organizational dimensions bear responsibility for constructing images of computing as a masculine domain that women should not enter except to occupy lower-status jobs.

The opening chapters—Thomas Misa’s “History in the Present” and Carolyn Clarke Hayes’s “Computer Science: The Incredible Shrinking Woman”—effectively establish the ways in which women’s participation in computing has been limited. Misa notes the collection’s three innovations: describing “historical data documenting the gender gap in computing,” offering “tools for grasping the dynamics of the gender gap,” and framing “the problem of gender and computing in international and comparative terms” (pp. 7–9). His historical analysis points to the ups and downs for women in the field, while Hayes digs deep into U.S. statistical data reporting on women and minorities in STEM to illustrate how women’s participation varies by rank and area. Thomas Haigh acknowledges the conjunction of “Masculinity and the Machine Man” in his essay of that title, identifying “the status of women as data-entry workers” who were generally not able to enter professional positions as “data processing supervisors” (p. 51) and “systems analysts” (p. 55), jobs occupied most often by men. Corinna Schlombs’s “A Gendered Job Carousel” confirms that women were [End Page 958] relegated to the tedious tasks of data entry in key-punch operations, establishing what became a “persistent pattern of female (non)participation in computing” (p. 75).

Case studies consider different national circumstances for women and men in computing. Marie Hicks explains that in Great Britain “computing was first institutionalized as a feminized sphere of work, and then very self-consciously re-engineered as a field of masculine endeavor” (p. 96).A study of the cultural perceptions of programming in the context of ENIAC and the postwar United States by Nathan Ensmenger shows that the American computing industry privileged masculine talents as opposed to the detailed “‘hand-work’ of the (largely female) ‘coder’” (p. 123). Greg Downey argues that library science, recognized for some time as an “intelligent woman’s profession in a numerical sense, was also a gendered profession in an analytical sense” as women earned less, held less powerful positions, and were segregated into “technical services” and “public services” (p. 145).

Two essayists examine media and cultural perceptions of computers and users. Hilde Corneliussen shows how the Norwegian press in late-twentieth-century news reports about personal computing characterized feminine ineptitude in contrast with masculine wizardry. Aristotle Tympas and collaborators survey examples of Greek advertisements illustrating feminine beauty and masculine competence in technology. Janet Abbate documents the often-pleasurable historical experiences of female pioneers in the software industry. Two essays round off the collection: Misa reviews “the workings of media bias and institutional blindness” (p. 251) that diminish interest and participation of women in computing, and Hayes provides explanations of why women do not...