Programmed Inequality

How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing

by Hicks

ISBN: 9780262342940 | Copyright 2017


How Britain lost its early dominance in computing by systematically discriminating against its most qualified workers: women.

In 1944, Britain led the world in electronic computing. By 1974, the British computer industry was all but extinct. What happened in the intervening thirty years holds lessons for all postindustrial superpowers. As Britain struggled to use technology to retain its global power, the nation's inability to manage its technical labor force hobbled its transition into the information age. 

In Programmed Inequality, Marie Hicks explores the story of labor feminization and gendered technocracy that undercut British efforts to computerize. That failure sprang from the government's systematic neglect of its largest trained technical workforce simply because they were women. Women were a hidden engine of growth in high technology from World War II to the 1960s. As computing experienced a gender flip, becoming male-identified in the 1960s and 1970s, labor problems grew into structural ones and gender discrimination caused the nation's largest computer user—the civil service and sprawling public sector—to make decisions that were disastrous for the British computer industry and the nation as a whole.

Drawing on recently opened government files, personal interviews, and the archives of major British computer companies, Programmed Inequality takes aim at the fiction of technological meritocracy.Hicks explains why, even today, possessing technical skill is not enough to ensure that women will rise to the top in science and technology fields. Programmed Inequality shows how the disappearance of women from the field had grave macroeconomic consequences for Britain, and why the United States risks repeating those errors in the twenty-first century.

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Contents (pg. vii)
Acknowledgments (pg. ix)
Introduction: Britain’s Computer “Revolution” (pg. 1)
Gender, Power, and Computers (pg. 3)
Feminization, Mechanization, Automation (pg. 5)
Office Work: The Girls in the Machine (pg. 8)
Accounting for the Total Labor Force (pg. 10)
Computing and the State (pg. 11)
Narrative Outline (pg. 12)
1 War Machines: Women’s Computing Work and the Underpinnings of the Data-Driven State, 1930–1946 (pg. 19)
Creating Information Workers (pg. 21)
Gendered War Work and High-Stakes Electronic Computing (pg. 25)
From Listening to Morse Code to Breaking Enigma: Codebreaking’s Layers of Data Processing (pg. 28)
Wrens Shoulder a Colossus: Britain’s Secret Technological Revolution (pg. 34)
Killing the Golden Geese (pg. 38)
The Girls in the Machine (pg. 42)
Equal Pay, Marriage Bars, and Dead-End Machine Work (pg. 49)
The Expansion of Computerization as a Tool of the State (pg. 55)
2 Data Processing in Peacetime: Institutionalizing a Feminized Machine Underclass, 1946–1955 (pg. 59)
Ensuring High Turnover for Women Workers (pg. 61)
Computer Labor before “Computers” (pg. 65)
The Fiction of Deskilling (pg. 68)
The Mechanical Ceiling (pg. 70)
Raising Productivity through Lowering Pay: The Trouble with Gendered Scientific Management (pg. 74)
The Machine Grades: Grassroots of the Equal Pay Campaign (pg. 79)
Deserving and Undeserving Workers (pg. 86)
Equal Pay versus Equal Value (pg. 90)
The Excluded Grades and the Formation of a Machine Work Underclass (pg. 93)
Toward the Electronic Office (pg. 96)
3 Luck and Labor Shortage: Gender Flux, Professionalization, and Growing Opportunities for Computer Workers, 1955–1967 (pg. 99)
The Fiction of Full Automation (pg. 102)
Leading and Stumbling: Computers, Staff, and Government Bureaucracy (pg. 107)
Envisioning a Future of Low Labor Costs (pg. 111)
From Low Cost to Best Bet: Women Operators as the Apotheosis of the Machine (pg. 122)
Looking at Machines through Workers’ Eyes (pg. 127)
Women in the Government Machine: Personal Experiences of Operators (pg. 132)
Moving Up, Moving On (pg. 138)
Young and Single at Computer Companies (pg. 142)
The Cooling of White Heat (pg. 145)
4 The Rise of the Technocrat: How State Attempts to Centralize Power through Computing Went Astray, 1965–1969 (pg. 149)
Technological Growing Pains and Reluctant Professionalization (pg. 152)
Rise of the “Computer Men” (pg. 155)
Finding and Wasting Computing Talent (pg. 157)
The Central Computer Bureau: A Microcosm of the State’s Computing (pg. 160)
Divisions between Scientific and Administrative Computing Labor: The Example of the Atomic Energy Authority (pg. 167)
Lowering Standards to Create an Elite (pg. 170)
Struggling to Modernize (pg. 172)
Creating the Government’s Ideal Computer (pg. 176)
Fortune Favors the Least Bold (pg. 183)
Ending Manpower Problems, Creating Hardware Ones (pg. 185)
A Backwater Becomes Mainstream (pg. 187)
5 The End of White Heat and the Failure of British Technocracy, 1969–1979 (pg. 189)
Redefining “British” Computing (pg. 191)
The Swift Failure of Government Consolidation (pg. 194)
Final Attempts to Centralize Control Over Computing (pg. 197)
Securing the Machinery of Government against Computer Workers (pg. 198)
Gender as Class (pg. 205)
Feminization and the White-Collar Labor Market (pg. 210)
Gaining Equal Pay, Again (pg. 211)
Redefining Women’s Work (pg. 214)
After White Heat (pg. 216)
The Economic Toll of Technocracy (pg. 221)
Conclusion: Reassembling the History of Computing around Gender’s Formative Influence (pg. 225)
A Labor-Starved Technological System (pg. 227)
Gender, Not Women, as a Category of Historical Analysis (pg. 231)
All History of Computing Is Gendered History (pg. 234)
The Legacy of Feminization (pg. 236)
Appendix: Timeline of Key Events (pg. 241)
Notes (pg. 245)
Epigraph (pg. 245)
Introduction (pg. 245)
1 War Machines (pg. 250)
2 Peacetime Data Processing (pg. 258)
3 Luck and Labor Shortage (pg. 266)
4 The Rise of the Technocrat (pg. 273)
5 The End of White Heat and the Failure of British Technocracy (pg. 282)
Conclusion (pg. 290)
Bibliography (pg. 295)
Archival Sources (pg. 295)
Series (pg. 297)
Interviews (pg. 302)
Censuses, Selected Government Reports, and Parliamentary Debates (pg. 303)
Industry Reports, Management Literature, and Computing Manuals (pg. 307)
Nonarchival Sources (pg. 309)
Index (pg. 331)

Marie Hicks

Marie Hicks is Associate Professor of History at Illinois Institute of Technology.