Official Discrimination In Britain's Computer Industry
Official Discrimination In Britain's Computer Industry
Written by Sue Gee   
Sunday, 27 May 2018

A book which uses as its sources recently opened government files, personal interview and the archives of major British computer companies reveals a shocking insight into the gender gap that still exists in the computer industry - Britain deliberately discriminated against its most qualified workers because they were women.

mhicks

The question of why women are so under-represented in the programming world is one that regularly crops up on this site. Recently the disparity in the number of men and women entering the profession appears to be starting to shrink, thanks in large part to the efforts of Code.org and other organizations that have taken up the cause of under-represented groups, namely girls and ethnic minorities.

I'd tended to be convinced by two reasons for the gender gap. One was that the different early experience of boys and girls in the home computing era when today's generation of IT professionals were growing up gave boys a greater enthusiasm for computers. The other was that the workplace culture in the industry deterred women from seeking a career in it. 

In the case of the UK, at least, it seems women were actively removed from the computer-related roles they had traditionally held once computers were perceived as being important. This is exposed by Marie Hicks in her book Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing.

Hicks presents a condensed version of the history presented in that book in an article with the title The changing role of women in British computing which has made me rethink why it is that women are so poorly represented in top computer-related jobs in Britain and why Britain itself lost its edge in the computer industry.

According to Hicks:

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.

To elaborate, as we know from articles on this site about the era of the first computers built in Britain, Colossus was operational in 1944 and is therefore in the running for being the world's the first electronic computer. However, its very existence, and the entire code-breaking effort based at Bletchely Park during World War II of which it was part, were shrouded in secrecy not only during its period of operation but for a long time afterwards. The fact that is was women who kept Colossus running only emerged at the end of the 20th with the publication of books such as Gordon Welchman's The Hut Six Story and The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay.

At the end of the war the women who had operated Colossus not only had to keep secret what they had done in the war, they also had to put up with low status for doing jobs that, by today's standards, were at the forefront of the computer revolution.

As Hicks put it:

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 1950 when the British Government accepted equal pay for equal work by men and women, the majority of women working in the civil service did not get equal pay, specifically because they 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 to the virtual exclusion of men, that their lower rate of pay had now become the standard market rate for the jobs. 

1950scomputer

 

Once the importance of computers to both government and business began to be recognized, the existence of an underclass of highly-trained technical workers who, as underpaid women, didn't share the interests and goals of the exclusively male, management was a potentially disastrous situation. Hicks gives as an example the fact that 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. Thus it was that in the 50s and 60s the British 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.

In the civil service, women and men workers were assigned different job categories even when they were doing the same work which ensured that more men occupied positions of power while women were relegated to functional roles, regardless of how capable they were. This had the intended effect of persuading women to leave computer jobs but without being able to replace them with male workers had a disastrous effect on the UK computer industry, as expounded by Hicks:

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.

This strategy might have worked except that, by the time ICL delivered the 2900 series of massive, powerful mainframes in the mid 1970s, the era of the mainframe was coming to an end and smaller machines and decentralised computer systems were taking over.

To quote Hicks:

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.

 

More Information

The changing role of women in British computing

Marie Hicks' website

Related Articles

Programmed Inequality (MIT Press)

Codebreaking and Colossus

Women In Computing

A Woman at Google I/O

Visualizing the Gender Gap in Computer Science

Code.org Five Years On

Women In Tech - Towards Gender Parity

What Influences Women To Pursue Computer Science

How To Build An Effective Team - Include Women

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