- Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing by Marie Hicks
by Marie Hicks
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 352 pages. $40 hardcover
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 one that focuses instead 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 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 code-breaking 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 de-skilled 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 [End Page 369] 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 Though repealed in 1946, the marriage bar was institutionalized in the formation of specific labor categories for women, which offered little in terms of a career path under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 without a passion for administrative history might find chapters 2 and 4 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 2, “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 under way 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 labor had other effects—it devalued machine work for men...