“...was the average 1970s computer hobbyist also a male?”
May 28, 2019 9:18 AM   Subscribe

The Gender Binary of Computing: Challenging Sexism in Technology by Rahul Zalkikar “Byte magazine was one of the most widely circulated magazines of its kind, reaching an estimated circulation of about 420,000 (third highest of all computer magazines) in the early 1980s. This analysis focuses on Byte’s beginnings, a time where hobbyists discussed ideas, sought help, shared opinions, and planned club events about computing technology. The average hobbyist was relatively young (students to middle-aged adults), relatively wealthy (middle to upper-middle class), and predominantly white.”

“The December 1975 cover of Byte [.PDF] prompted a months-long debate about the role of gender in the microcomputer hobby. The illustration depicted a stereotypical family-father, mother, and three kids-opening gifts on Christmas morning with Santa Claus peeking from behind the tree. This cover not only propagated the notion that computing is for men, it reinforced the stereotypical view of ‘housewives’ who don’t understand or aren’t interested in computers. [...] The pronoun debate opened space for a broader discussion of gender and computing culture. A male hobbyist by the name of Zhahai Stewart took issue with masculine pronouns being used in the magazine, but went beyond that to advocate for proactively building women’s interest in computers. After all, noted Stewart, the “first programmer” was Lady Ada Lovelace. The editors resisted taking responsibility for the predominance of men among their readers, instead placing the onus on “the other 50% of the human race” to develop their own interest in computing.”
posted by Fizz (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My mom worked for a computer hobbyist magazine in the early 80s, primarily as a copy editor. Publishing in general was a toxic field for women and technical hobbyist publishing sounds like it was at the extreme end of that. They expected her to cover CES which at the time was about what you'd expect - basically a seriously debauched bachelor party full of cheating husbands. I don't think she ever actually went, just made excuses and heard her colleagues crowing about the girls after the fact. They looked forward to it all year.

A few years ago I got curious and looked up some back issues - someone scanned a bunch of them and put them on a website I can no longer find. My mom mostly reviewed games when she had a byline, as far as I could find. There was actually more representation by women writers and their concerns than I'd expected. There were myriad "stereotypical housewife" tasks like recipe management and household budget tracking that women were working to solve for themselves, and sharing approaches in print and in the classifieds at the back. But this was a platform-specific publication (there were articles with code for this specific machine which you could type in yourself) and I imagine Byte was covering things at a higher level, limiting its appeal to people just trying to use the household computer to get stuff done.

My mom couldn't have given less of a crap about computers; it was just a job to her. Speaking as a female software engineer though it was fascinating to see how hobbyists were writing about computers in the years right before I was born.
posted by potrzebie at 9:40 AM on May 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

The relationship between early PC and hacker culture, and the predecessor hobbies that were feeders for it in the 1970s, including ham radio and model railroading (the latter mostly at MIT), is interesting and fairly important to how the field developed the way it did.

I don't know that you need to dig too deeply to figure out why. Technology-based hobbies—especially those dealing with emerging technologies—tend to be expensive and require a lot of disposable income. Traditionally, men in the US have been more likely to have that, and women have been less likely to do so, because men were more likely to be in the workforce and be income-earners and have discretionary control of their finances. A woman who had to have her expenditures "approved" (tacitly or literally) by her husband is probably a lot less likely to run out and drop several hundred dollars on radio gear in the 50s/60s, or several thousand on a PC and its accoutrements in the 70s. Adjusted for inflation, computer gear during the height of the BYTE era was eye-wateringly expensive.

So right from the very beginning, these hobbies tend to be a boys' club because you have to pay to play. And on top of that you layer the background and education required to get into some technical hobbies—lots of ham radio people came out of the military, and originally a lot of the gear was surplus; the schools and academic programs that harbored a lot of early hacker culture were themselves highly male-dominated—and the hard icing on the cake is the toxicity and sexism of the culture that develops.

You can see the basis of this even today: sports and hobbies that are equipment-intensive / gear fetishistic (which naturally favors whoever has more disposable income to sacrifice) tend to be disproportionately male, while ones that require less upfront investment and less gear fetishism tend, at least in my experience, to have more female participants. E.g. my running club has a much better gender balance than my road-cycling club, and I suspect at least part of that is due to road cycling having somewhat higher table stakes. (Though at least in my corner of the world this seems to be improving over time. And there are exceptions: I don't know what the triathlon people have done right, but that's an activity that's both equipment-intensive and seemingly pretty gender-balanced. Cf. road cycling which is still kinda a sausagefest.)

I think we need to be careful not to reify this into some sort of Venus/Mars thing where the technology itself has some sort of gender preference, because I've seen little evidence of that, and it's really easy to slide from there into a "male brains are inherently better at ___" awful evo-bio dumbassery. The technology doesn't care who you are; it's the culture around the technology, both in its development and employment, that's frequently sexist and toxic.

The nice thing is that if entry cost is one of the things that leads to gender imbalance, the collapse in prices of computer components should help. Right now it's never been cheaper to get into microelectronics and hardware hacking, or software / programming. Working computers are basically free, dev boards like Raspberry Pis are anywhere from a few bucks up to the cost of a decent lunch, components that you might have had to special-order from RadioShack at a dollar apiece are available in assortments for a few dollars (along with a thousand components you don't need right then, but it's perversely cheaper that way), and on the software side the open-source languages and tools have almost crushed the proprietary and expensive toolchains in most domains (some microcontrollers, FPGAs, and Apple/iOS are the notable exceptions that come to mind). The amount of information you can get without having to deal with toxic people in a club setting is also pretty much an all-time high.

So things should be better on that front; what's left is to break up the vestiges of the sexist boys club culture that sclerotized over the years.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:53 AM on May 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

The "relatively wealthy" bit is easily explained if you recall what computer hardware cost back then. Leaving aside 8-bit games machines like the Sinclair Spectrum (consoles as we now know them barely existed, outside Japan, until the middle of the decade—even though Atari initially sold consoles, they pivoted to the more profitable machines with a keyboard and ROM BASIC), if you wanted to get anything done you needed: a keyboard and CPU, a floppy disk drive and a dot matrix printer. Also at a minimum a TV as a monitor.

Putting that lot together was expensive. An original Apple II was, IIRC, about US $666 without the floppy disk drive, printer, or monitor. A BBC Model B (equivalent to an Apple IIe in power) was £399, and floppy disk drives were about £200 each. A dot matrix printer cost more in round numbers than a colour laser printer today—and there's been twofold price inflation since the early 80s.

By roughly 1985 it was possible, in the UK, to buy an all-in-one entry level computer suitable for word processing and light business use, the Amstrad PCW, for a little under £500 (a bit under £1000 in today's money). But an actual PC started at £1200 for the CPU, then add maybe £1000 more for a monitor plus hard disk, some memory, and a dot matrix printer. An actual IBM PC XT with a 10Mb hard disk was about £4000 when it dropped; an early Macintosh 128K was £2500 (or the same in dollars). You can double those prices in real terms if you want to get a feel for what they meant in modern terms.

And if you go back to the late 1970s it was even worse. Computers were expensive. As hobbies go, it was maybe cheaper than hot-rodding or flying a light plane, but not by much.

And the rest all follows if you frame it as a hobby for the privileged.
posted by cstross at 10:58 AM on May 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

It's also a time that was pretty much still "girls in secondary school take home ec, boys in secondary school take shop", and I don't recall there being girl scout merit badges in ham radio or other tech things in the early 1980's, but I'm pretty sure there were for boy scouts, and a whole Jamboree on the air" thing was - as far as I know - boys-only. So, lots of things pushing girls away from it and boys towards it leading up to that time.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:26 AM on May 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

My experience corresponds to what people are saying about how this kind of extreme gender separation was definitely linked to the hobbyist world. At the software company where I worked during the 80s, by 1988 my team had 4 women developers and one male student intern. In my division, which worked on mainframe products, there were three exceptional geniuses who worked on their own on special research projects, two women and one man. The DEC VAX and UNIX product divisions were both run by women business directors, and had women in charge of development.

But when the company set up a PC division in 1985, it was all male from the beginning and stayed that way as it grew to eventually take over the leadership of the business in the 90s. Right away, there was a culture clash between the original development culture of the company, which grew out of industry-university partnerships for mathematical research into algorithms, and the hobbyist mentality of the PC crowd. The CEO liked to wander the offices and check in on people, and he was always complaining that he kept seeing the PC developers reading magazines -- BYTE, Dr. Dobbs, and PC World -- when they should have been working. Someone had to explain to him that in the PC universe, there weren't the extensive multi-volume manual sets and research journals that he was used to on other platforms, and the valuable information was in the hobbyist magazines.

Unfortunately, that valuable information came along with a bunch of sexist (and Randist) attitudes that changed tech culture for good.
posted by fuzz at 1:35 PM on May 28, 2019 [12 favorites]

Leaving aside 8-bit games machines like the Sinclair Spectrum
Not leaving that aside kinda undercuts your point though. As a kid whose working class parents wouldn't have been able to afford a beeb, I learned to program on a speccy, and there's a lot like me. There's more to the filter that women software engineers went through at the end of the 60s than just cost.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:42 PM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might be wondering, was the average 1970s computer hobbyist also a male?
You wouldn't be wondering this if you were old enough in the 1970s to have any memories of the time. The thing at the link is like someone excitedly announcing the discovery that water is wet.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 5:37 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a very long term lurker, I finally make my first post. As far as computer stuff goes, look at my slashdot number. Anyways, I was told on irc back in the 90s I was older than dirt. My impression is 1965 - men. 1975 - men. 1985- some women. 2015 - most women go into management.
posted by baegucb at 5:40 PM on May 28, 2019 [6 favorites]

My impression is 1965 - men.
Interesting. My impression of the 60s was that women like Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton were defining the field (Hopper obviously earlier also, but was still active in the 60s). They didn't get pushed out until the 70s when everything got reinvented by the Unix guys. Not to gainsay you of course, I wasn't born until the 70s, so have no first hand experience.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:10 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

My impression of the 60s was that women like Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton were defining the field
Women like Hopper made all sorts of important contributions, but in terms of "defining the field" they might as well not have existed. It was a man's world in those days, even more than now if you can imagine such a thing.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:13 PM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think fuzz makes a really good point about the different culture, and huge culture shift, that occurred when PCs ate computing.

Mainframe and minicomputer programming was an academic/big-industrial discipline and I think most people ended up in it via math departments. Which were probably not the most perfectly gender-balanced, but I think they were probably better than the early computer clubs, ham radio clubs, etc. I mean, at least there's an obvious path towards becoming a math major: you sign up for a course and go from there. And although it's speculative on my part, I can imagine that within academic math, computer programming and algorithms might have offered less old-boys-club resistance than other areas of study. (I mean I have totally met crusty academic mathematicians who regard anything vaguely CompSci as Not Really Math.)

There were some sub-disciplines of pre-PC computing that were majority female; not the most glamorous jobs, but keypunch operators were largely women I believe. (I'm not sure if this was the result of WWII, or if it was a conscious decision on somebody's part, like AT&T hiring women as phone operators.)

The failure on the part of the big computer companies—IBM, Control Data, Honeywell, etc.—to properly anticipate the impact that PCs would have is probably one reason why the field was basically taken over by amateurs. And while that did lead to a certain charm—all the SV garage startup stories, modern-day Horatio Alger stuff like Jobs/Wozniak, hacker culture, etc.—it set the field back in various ways.

Setting aside gender issues and looking just at technical ones, it's amazing how stuff that IBM was doing in the 60s anticipated developments that only became mainstream on PCs decades later. As early as 1972, IBM had a fully virtualized OS, so each user didn't just get a session on a shared host, but their own isolated virtual instance, so they couldn't screw with each other. And even more clever? The VM was self-hosting; you could run another instance of the VM inside one, for development purposes. You can still today go through old research papers and strip-mine them for ideas, because so much of the academic stuff that was on the horizon was never properly implemented during the big iron to PC transition.

It's basically an article of faith in the modern tech community that PCs were a great thing, one of the key inventions of the 20th century, second only to moveable type in some people's estimation—but I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we had kept plugging away on the trajectory things had taken from 1945-1975, and just let the minicomputer companies squeeze their products into smaller packages as silicon processes improved. I think we might have both better security and a less bro-y culture. But impossible to ever say for sure.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:26 AM on May 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

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