Marie Hicks is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing.”
The rampant sexism in the tech world was put on full display this week after an internal memo from a Google software engineer went viral on the Internet. If we are to believe the memo’s author — who was fired from the company Monday — women are more prone to “neuroticism” and less likely to pursue leadership roles in the tech industry because of “biological differences.”
Unfortunately, this sentiment is far too commonplace. It’s also wildly inaccurate. Women are not worse at computing than men. In fact, history shows they were foundational to the field. When women suffer, so too does computing.
Britain gives us a startling historical example of how discrimination not only hurt female computer workers, but also helped destroy a nation’s once-thriving computer industry.
British women played instrumental roles in early computer programming, operation and systems analysis. During World War II, it was primarily women who assembled, trouble-shot and ran the British Colossus computers, which decrypted coded messages intercepted from the German army. Using these computers, British women helped turn the tide of World War II at a time when the best electronic computers in the United States were still essentially in the testing phase.
After the war, Britain led or matched U.S. advancements in computing, deploying the first dedicated business computer (known as the LEO) and building up an industry that seemed poised to dominate much of the rest of the world. Major computer companies employed women and sent them to customer sites across the globe to train managers and their staffs how to program and use the expensive machines. These were the very first computer experts: the technically minded people who trained others how make opaque and intimidating machines usable.
That most of these women remain unknown has nothing to do with their demonstrated skills and everything to do with their valuation as citizens in the 20th century. The technical work of early computing required significant skill, but it was perceived as less intellectual because women did it. Who was performing the tasks, not the content of the work, defined its worth.
By the late 1950s, things began to change. Computers, now recognized as tools for wielding power, seemed too important to leave to women, and as a result, women were tasked with training men to replace them. Inexperienced men with no technical skills quickly became managers and computer “professionals” — paid at higher levels than the women who had done the same jobs.
In fact, female programmers in the British government were explicitly barred from taking the entrance exams to ascend to these higher posts, despite meeting all the qualifications. The idea that women should not be in management foreclosed their opportunities.
Persistent programmer labor shortages, caused by Britain’s discarding its trained technical workforce, resulted in computer installations growing more centralized to accommodate the small group of technocrats now available to run the machines. The government demanded ever-larger mainframes and the British computing industry poured all its resources into giving the government what it wanted, even though massive mainframes were falling out of favor. Labor shortages caused by gender discrimination doomed Britain to producing technology that nobody wanted.
Meritocracy is a fiction perpetually used to make false claims about women’s and men’s respective talents. Those who invoke meritocracy often do so to rationalize different outcomes. But when women have done the same jobs as men — sometimes even with more skill — employers always find ways to undercut their expertise: paying them less, promoting them more slowly or simply firing them. The same happens for people of color.
History shows that the identity of the person doing the job usually matters more to how the work is valued than the content of the work itself. When men and women do identical work, they still face systemic pay disparities, even allegedly at Google. History also shows that the idea of women’s inferiority in technical fields just isn’t true. The memo from Google is not an argument based on reason but a screed that seeks to do something historically familiar: submerge women’s contributions when it appears they might be gaining too much power.
Entire economies suffer when the potential of women and minorities is wasted. The sooner we learn that lesson the better.
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