Rampant sexism killed the British computer industry
November 1, 2018 1:30 AM   Subscribe

In addition to doing all of her normal work, our programmer also had to train two new hires. These new hires didn't have any of the required technical skills. But once she trained them, which took about a year, they stepped up into management roles. Their trainer, meanwhile, was demoted into an assistantship below them. She succeeded at her job, only to fail in her career.
That the trainer was a woman, and that her trainees were both young men, was no coincidence.
posted by MartinWisse (27 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Damn. That article is devastating. I am convinced. What can we do to learn from this history? Because right now it looks like we are just setting up to repeat the cycle-- with the added injustices now that workers of differing races and sexualities are also in the mix, not to mention the national scale of the problem is now globally international. Seriously, how can a person work against these forces?
posted by seasparrow at 3:33 AM on November 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

Things are bad now. Can't imagine how awful it must have been back then. Thanks for posting this.
posted by carter at 4:07 AM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is exactly why I felt sad at the end of Hidden Figures. You know that these women will be exploited while their managers rise to positions of importance,
posted by SPrintF at 5:38 AM on November 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

I think this article underplays the extent to which things really have changed. At least, at the software company where I work it sometimes feels like we have the opposite problem -- we seem to have a hard time keeping women in software development roles at least in part because they keep getting promoted into management.

That being said, I don't work in the USA, and this article is at least in part about how different countries have different technical cultures. It's possible Silicon Valley is more regressive? It does seem like the more money and power are at stake, the more likely women are to get pushed out, and Silicon Valley is the nexus for an absurd amount of money and power.
posted by Kilter at 6:10 AM on November 1, 2018

So here's a question about the British context - besides the finance industry, what sectors didn't whither away towards the end of the immediate post-war period? I have understood the automotive sector followed roughly this trajectory of presumptive dominance immediately post war to a laughing stock by the 80s, presumably for different reasons (but maybe not!).
posted by PMdixon at 6:27 AM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Not tech, but a major US industrial company. This happened to my aunt about 50 years ago:.Worse for her morale (she was a very loyal employee) was when her new young male boss buzzed her to come into his office and pour him water from the carafe on the credenza just behind his desk. She took early retirement.
posted by Carol Anne at 7:45 AM on November 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

I suspect the British decline has nothing to do with sexism, but more to do with the increasing interference by the unions.
You cannot pay more without the company producing more, but the unions never got that.

I have trained computer people who have come back to the company years later as senior management advisors - not that they actually had anything new to say, but it was the done thing to buy in management advice.
posted by Burn_IT at 7:53 AM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Echoing PMdixon. As sad and infuriating as the stories conveyed in the article, I stand by what I've always been told: that the main cause of the British failure to develop a successful computing platform was their inability of coming up with a way to make it leak oil.
posted by 7segment at 8:02 AM on November 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

There’s no question that had the UK used the talent of the women that it eliminated from the workforce, it would have done far better.

But the US was no better on this front, so the reason why the UK computing industry withered whilst the US one went from strength to strength must surely be found elsewhere.
posted by pharm at 8:03 AM on November 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yes, great idea, blame the unions for corporate sexism, classism and and management being bad at their jobs. Good call.
posted by evilDoug at 8:53 AM on November 1, 2018 [65 favorites]

Burn_IT: That’s fascinating; I’ve never heard that take before. Do you have resources on the unions that represented the “subclerical” or “machine grade” workers in the British Civil Service, the ones who were for the most part the subjects of this article?

And more broadly speaking could you point us toward resources on the unions that represented private sector British tech workers in the mid 20th century, since you seem to be primarily talking about the private sector rather than the public sector? I’m not a scholar of British information history, but as I understand it union representation in the United States tech industry was next to nil in the mid 20th century, like it’s next to nil now. Some facts on the comparative history of unionization in the US and UK tech industries would be a useful contribution to this conversation.

Also, I was wondering if you have anything to contribute related to the discussion of the British government’s preference for mainframe systems well past the heyday of the mainframe, as is discussed in the second half of the article in the post, an article which you have doubtlessly read?

Or are you just spouting nonsense that accords with your ill-considered anti-union stance?

cause it sort of seems like you’re spouting nonsense that accords with your ill-considered anti-union stance.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2018 [67 favorites]

You cannot pay more without the company producing more, but the unions never got that.

Even accepting the "not producing more" premise, which I'm not sure is true, you certainly can. You see, it turns out the revenues of a company are spent on lots of different kinds of expenses. One of them is unionized employee salaries. One of them is the inputs necessary to make the goods or offer the services the company sells. Another is paying disproportionately large salaries to management without any accountability being asked in return. Yet another is returning money unasked to shareholders through buybacks and dividends. Yet another is servicing unnecessary debt taken on to support arbitrary corporate maneuvers like LBOs. It turns out that if you cut the latter three, there can be more money for the former two! Math! What a concept.
posted by praemunire at 9:13 AM on November 1, 2018 [40 favorites]

One of the reasons for Britain’s industrial decline is that the word “Engineer” has a very different meaning in British English. It means anyone who operates, maintains, assembles, or designs a machine. An engineer is the person who changes a tyre on an airplane, as well as the person who designed that tyre.

In most other English speaking countries Engineer means a professional at a similar level to a Lawyer or a Doctor. I’m sure that this discourages the best and brightest from going into engineering instead of finance.
posted by monotreme at 9:14 AM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

but praemunire, stockholders and managers are in superior positions to workers within workplace hierarchies, which means that they deserve the money they receive, unlike those dirty workers, who should be happy with whatever they get. If successful unionization results in workers receiving more money and management less, that’s a deep injustice that cannot be abided.

Returning to the article, it’s fascinating that a woman who has won the brutal fight for a tenure track job in the relatively small field of history of computing can perform years of archival research on the mid 20th century british tech industry, can publish a book on the results of her research, can publish articles from that book, but can nevertheless be immediately dismissed by one male tech industry worker who hasn’t bothered to read any of her writing, and who presents as counter-evidence the claim that in his current IT job in the present day, some women are in management.

It is truly remarkable that an unqualified man in tech can dismiss a qualified woman in the way. It is almost as if the historical patterns that Dr. Hicks has found through her research are still with us today.

monotreme: beyond what you’ve observed, it’s noteworthy that programmers in the british civil service, as discussed in the article, were classified as “machine grade,” one of the lowest (if not the lowest) paid grades in the british civil service. Programming was understood as unskilled work, largely specifically because women did it, and the people who did it were paid accordingly.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2018 [28 favorites]

An engineer is the person who changes a tyre on an airplane, as well as the person who designed that tyre.

Can you support this assertion?

Between the above and the unionization nugget at top, I must say that I'm pleased, as a dude, that once again what seems like sexism being the most likely cause, and the one with the most evidence, turns out to be something else entirely!
posted by maxwelton at 9:30 AM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm in the UK. I did a degree that was on the borderline of science and engineering. When I graduated, I had the choice to have it granted as either an engineering or science degree, with the explanation from the university that this was being done specifically due to the low status of engineering in the UK.

"An engineer is the person who changes a tyre on an airplane, as well as the person who designed that tyre. "

As an English person I can confirm this is normal English usage.
posted by curious_yellow at 9:40 AM on November 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

I thought it was great until the end, which I'm not sure if I agree with this:

It inaugurated a new era of “greed is good,” and in the process, Silicon Valley learned that it could actively profit from social inequality.

Also the company I work for was still considering mainframe-based computer solutions until well into the 1990s, (I didn't work there then, but i still saw all the old proposals in filing cabinets) so I'm not sure I agree that 'holding on to mainframes' necessarily would have killed the industry in the mid '70s - but would certainly agree it would not be at the technological forefront position the UK originally held.

My mom actually did the computer punch cards for a computer while in college in the 1970s. She never had much to say about it, and became a teacher instead. I'll have to ask her about it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:49 AM on November 1, 2018

A terrific article that makes complete sense of how Britain dropped the ball in computing. It feels as if this observation by Hicks also ties into our recent discussion of the political role of social media, and the connections people have made before between the alt-right and Gamergate:

We continue to ignore the role of women and other minority groups in technology fields—and the impact of technology on those minoritized groups. When Twitter or Facebook is accused of doing something that hurts women, it is seen as a niche concern. Women do not stand in for “people” in general in the eyes of technology behemoths.

Even the framing that social media can harm "minoritized groups" is problematic, because it's too easy (for straight white cis men) to read it as "can harm a minority". But women (>50%) and men from other minority groups added together form a significant majority. Aspects of social media that hurt women and other minority groups hurt most people.
posted by rory at 10:04 AM on November 1, 2018 [14 favorites]

"I suspect the British decline has nothing to do with sexism, but more to do with the increasing interference by the unions."

This is about as deep as any anti-union argument seems to go these days. That it's entirely irrelevant to the article in OP is also pretty standard anti-unionism.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:18 AM on November 1, 2018 [21 favorites]

British men taking over what was originally mere “female work” reminds me of the role of pilots in the WWI royal flying corps: piloting an airplane was considered to be at the same social level as driving a carriage, so the work was done by enlisted men with officers as observers. The officers soon realized that piloting was far too much fun to be left to the lower orders, and enlisted men were no longer allowed to be pilots.

I suspect a similar process combined with sexism to push skilled women out of computing.
posted by monotreme at 10:22 AM on November 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

But the US was no better on this front, so the reason why the UK computing industry withered whilst the US one went from strength to strength must surely be found elsewhere.

The US at the very least had Admiral Grace Hopper and some early efforts at IBM and Apple that kept women in the industry from being completely sidelined through the latter half of the twentieth century. Just prior to the first dotcom boom I worked with several women technical managers who'd been with IBM for decades. Frances Allen was the first woman recognized as an IBM Fellow in 1989, but there have been at least six since.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:44 AM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

The British computer industry isn't exactly dead. The ARM architecture is the most widely used instruction set architecture in the world, used in almost all mobile devices - and the ARM instruction set was designed by a woman.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 1:31 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

The ARM instruction set was designed by a woman, and a complete genius too. But Sophie Wilson was born Roger Wilson, and it’s rather a good question to ask, that if she’d been born Sophie, would she have been in the position to become one of the most influential engineers the UK has ever had?
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 5:29 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Maxwelton I can also confirm that this is standard UK English usage. I googled “Engineering jobs UK” and this was the first hit: they want somebody who repairs sliding doors.
posted by tinkletown at 6:57 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I suspect the British decline has nothing to do with sexism, but more to do with the increasing interference by the unions.

The 1970s antipathy towards out-of-control unionism in the UK and the US has nothing to do with unions, but more to do with booming economies in the rest of Europe recovering from the destruction of WWII. If other countries' economies are growing by 10% when they got basically obliterated 20 years ago and you're only growing 5% and yours wasn't it doesn't mean unions are holding you back, but the UK and US never understood that.

I can use this dodgy framing too, except I can provide a citation
posted by Merus at 7:57 PM on November 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Alternate theory, just for something to consider: maybe there is a sort of "critical mass" effect that the US benefited from, and the UK didn't, or at least the US benefited more from. Something proportional to the absolute number of people working in a rapidly-developing industry in a particular area.

The British computer industry was never the size of the US's, and perhaps that stopped it from ever having the critical mass in one particular place to ignite a sort of chain-reaction of innovation breeding other innovation, in the way that it did in a few places in the US. (SV and Boston being the big ones that stick out.)

This doesn't mean that sexism wasn't an additional round fired into their collective foot; if they'd treated men and women equally, in theory they might have gotten closer to that critical mass point by virtue of making more efficient use of personnel. Sexism is, after all, a sort of deadweight loss insofar as it moves away from merit-based assignments and advancement. But it might not have been enough even still to compete globally, though not being shitty to half the workforce is an unalloyed good regardless of the consequences or potential benefits.

Only an asshole needs to have the benefits of not being sexist explained to them in economic terms.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:10 PM on November 1, 2018

It’s certainly the case that the US computer industry benefited enormously from massive amounts of government investment on a scale that the UK government was simply incapable of matching — It’s no secret the intercontinental ballistic missile program in the U.S. was a driving force in the development of integrated circuits in the 60s for instance. The missile program provided both research funding and the guaranteed initial order flow that allowed the construction of production facilities that went on to produce chips for use by other industries. The order flow from the security services for the computing facilities required to break encrypted communications provided another source of demand.

At an early point in the Apollo program, the MIT group responsible for the on-board computer was chewing through 30% of the production capacity for chips in question, which cost ~ $1000 a piece at the beginning. By the end of the decade, equivalent chips were $25 each.

SV doesn't really like to acknowledge it’s absolute dependence on military spending in the early years & everything that follows was built on this base & even today often relies on military investment to fund the R+D. (A computing project I worked on for years was mostly funded by the DRA & DARPA between them. It’s hard to escape the military-industrial complex even if you stick to theoretical computing...)
posted by pharm at 3:37 PM on November 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

« Older Miffa Miffa Meeka Moo!   |   The time of their lives. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments