Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

Summary: A few high-profile female CEOs doesn't make up for the fact that computing remains a male-dominated career. This book examines the reasons why, beginning with the pioneers in wartime Britain and America.

TOPICS: After Hours, Reviews

Fifteen years ago, a friend commented that there was a book to be written about the history of women in computing. In the early days — the 1950s and 1960s — he said, programmers were women. You can see the Mad Men logic: women are good at detail, and they can type. Now, in Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate has written that book.

You could hardly hope for a better choice: her 2000 book, Inventing the Internet, is one of the few on that subject that includes the non-US contributions to the development of computer networking. In this book, Abbate compares and contrasts the experiences of the female pioneers in computing in Britain and America, beginning by considering the experiences of the women working at Bletchley Park and on ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania during the Second World War.


As Abbate tells it, gender discrimination was particularly rampant on the British side, where male managers assumed that women were simply incapable of learning any technical detail. Even without that, the regime of absolute secrecy that for many decades afterwards kept Bletchley Park staff from discussing any of the computer work they were doing meant that they tended to learn very little. On the US side, more swapping of information was allowed, and the women were given more encouragement to learn about the machines. The result, Abbate argues, is that after the war US women who wished to continue in computing careers were in much better shape to do so: they were, unlike their British counterparts, allowed to tell prospective employers what they'd been working on.

Those careers — and the way men gradually took over the computing field as software became more closely identified with engineering and lost some of its social and organisational context — occupy the rest of the book, as Abbate follows the trajectories of women in academia and business through to the present day. Over the last couple of decades, as Abbate notes, the numbers of women in computing have been dropping. By now, they are pretty grim, certainly in academia, and even in the commercial sector. This is despite the presence of a few high-profile female CEOs such as Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!), Meg Whitman (HP, also previously run by Carly Fiorina) and, in the UK, Steve Shirley — who tells Abbate that she built her software business by hiring home-based women programmers.

Over the last couple of decades, Abbate notes, the numbers of women in computing have been dropping.

Both the British Computer Society and the US Association for Computing Machinery have documented and anguished over the "shrinking pipeline", and it's a slight disappointment that Abbate doesn't quite manage to answer why it's happening. There is a hint, when she quotes Shirley, who notes that because the computer industry moves so fast, a break to have a baby is damaging to a woman's career in a way that it's not in other science and engineering disciplines.

The other not-quite-answered question is this: how is the code that women write different? The closest suggestion seems to be that women, who are typically taught "soft" skills such as communication, may be better at serving their customers' actual needs than someone approaching software as a purely technical problem.

Either way, if you're a young woman seeking an interesting career, we've got your role models right here.


Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing
By Janet Abbate
MIT Press
248 pages
ISBN: 978-0-262-01806-7

Topics: After Hours, Reviews

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Technology Is Something You Do In Spite Of Those Around You

    Women seem to need social validation for the things they do, men less so. There's nothing stopping a girl from hacking on a PC in her own bedroom, except her need to spend time outside that bedroom and around real people.
    • yes social validation is more important to women

      I guess this is why you hear no males complain that Nursing and Teaching are overwhelmingly dominated by females.

      And who cares about CEO's, they are all interchangeable--except for maybe the late Jobs.
  • Girls aren't as interested in tech as guys

    How about you stop trying to make them feel guilty about it.
    • oh really???

      Is it really that so? Those of us ,who happened to be a developer,DBA,Sysadmin love their job no less then man does. We like new gadgets,we like elegant decisions in coding,we like to design the software and to right the apps. Your information SO OLD!!!
      Maria Davidenko
    • Some of them are

      My sister is one. But I think her interest in mathematics got a lot more parental encouragement than is typical.
      John L. Ries
  • Discrimination

    I really dislike this whole "discrimination" topic.
    If you can do the job - do it.
    If you are failing - get better at it and try again instead of blaming white straight men.
  • You guys have a problem...

    You think the world didn't change in the last 40 years. It is not so. So, you continue to think that we can not code , design the software ,testing it,administrating DBs and systems. You're wrong.this is absolutely right ,that we're good in details, and this is the reason why the software developed by a women will look more beatifull and will provide the better user experience . This is men,who lets to himself leave the @dirty" and undocumented code, I saw it thousands of times in the last 7 years. So,before telling someone is not able to be the part of a computer industry ,examine yourselves first
    Maria Davidenko
    • Re: You guys have a problem...

      The rarity of someone like you just proves the point. We keep hearing "we need more role models". Well, who were YOUR role models? Odds are you got into tech IN SPITE of those around you, just like the guys did, and quite unlike the career choices of most girls.
      • just to inform you some numbers

        I don't know about the US statistics for this question, I live at Israel. It is right, that Israel isn't the one of the biggest countries in the world, but... Every hi-tech company as well as bio-tech too has no less then 30-40% of women in its IT and R
        Maria Davidenko
        • Part 2

          Well,iPhone ate the rest of my comment...

          We're practice to put the woman on a TL or PM positions very often. You may see absolutely "girls" teams. A women takes care about her team better than a man does - just because this is the nature of a woman - to care. Woman in systems deps are more rare- 5-10%: man's kingdom
          Women in QA and design- every 5-th is there.
          System architect - no less than 15%
          Are you still state the woman in techs are rare?
          Maria Davidenko
          • Interesting logic

            You're fighting to be considered equal and to prove that gender does not matter, you're saying that women are better then men.
            Молодец Маша!
          • Hmm

            Better? In some aspects - yes, in others- no. It is not so wise to state smth. like "All woman are good, all men are bad". It varies from person to person. What I really try to say is that you can't put us out of the decisions in the tech world by saying we're not able to decide and to do something or we're not interested.
            Maria Davidenko
          • Re: A women takes care about her team better than a man does

            So, does a woman make a better manager, rather than doing the actual work?
          • not exactly

            Women thinks both about the work process and the people in a team, men - about the work process only. You decide what's really better. Thinking about a team doesn't make the delivery process more slow, it just produces motivation to work better. So , yes the woman are better managers. As for non administrative positions we're both take the same place. There's terrible developers, designers and so on , that are woman-as well as man.There's brilliant too. We're equal.
            Maria Davidenko
  • How sad...

    ...That man still has the same limited thinking regarding the women's role in some parts of life,that it was 40 years ago ...
    Maria Davidenko
  • People will be interested... what they're interested, regardless of gender.

    While we shouldn't put barriers in front of people, there are fields that will be more interesting to women and those that will be more interesting to men (and tech has historically been more interesting to the male half of the population). There are also socialization issues: the very fact that the vast majority of flute players are female dissuades many boys and young men from taking up the instrument, even though playing it is not inherently masculine or feminine, female flautists are normally delighted to play with the male sort, and there have been some very prominent male flautists (Ian Anderson and Ray Thomas come to mind).

    What we do need to do is to make sure that the minority of young women that are interested in tech are not discouraged from taking it up either because of supposed lack of aptitude, ideas that it's a man's occupation only, or hostility or harassment in professional training programs or on the job. The attitude of parents is vital, as is that of teachers and supervisors. But understand that many will likely be dissuaded *because* the vast majority of their professional colleagues will be male , which inevitably affects the culture of the workplace (men and women think and act differently from each other, always have, and probably always will). But those women who are comfortable with that (or are willing to overcome the discomfort) and have the skills and aptitude to contribute can and should have a place in the profession. Just understand that it's going to feel a lot like being an only daughter with many brothers (both bad and good) and that's not likely to change any time soon, if ever.
    John L. Ries
  • Changing the subject slightly ....

    To change the subject slightly : -

    US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has lifted the military's ban on women serving in combat roles, potentially opening hundreds of thousands of frontline positions to women.

    24th January 2013