More Topics

Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

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.
Written by Wendy M Grossman, Contributor

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

Editorial standards