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Britain in the 70s killed its tech industry because of sexism

rhymes profile image rhymes ・3 min read

I just finished reading an article on Logic Magazine: How To Kill Your Tech Industry.

Let's start from the subtitle:

In World War II, Britain invented the electronic computer. By the 1970s, its computing industry had collapsed—thanks to a labor shortage produced by sexism.

I had a vague recollection about Britain's supremacy in computing: the best Nazi codebreakers were probably British and 75% of personnel at Bletchley Park was made of women (!!).

What I didn't know is how pervasive stupidity and short-sightedness were in the 60s and 70s in Britain. Though I acknowledge that judging past societies by contemporary standards is risky, we're not talking about Middle Kingdom in Ancient Egypt or something remote like that, it's just a few decades ago with behaviors that still have ripercussions today.

Going back to the article, which I urge you to read, there are a few (more than a few to be honest) passages that flabbergasted me (aside from women retiring from the work force in their 20s to get married, which totally makes sense, doesn't it??!):

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.

This is a classic, it still happens today, in tech and in other fields.

computers were now becoming widely integrated into government and industry. Their great power and potential was growing more apparent. Suddenly, low-status women workers were no longer seen as appropriate for this type of work—even though they had the technical skills to do the jobs.

So, as soon as society and goverment realized there were serious money and power in controlling computing machines, they started jettisoning women out of jobs they were perfectly skilled for.

After being denied another promotion, one that she’d earned several times over, she eventually learned that the men evaluating her were resigning from the promotions board rather than making a decision on her case. “They disapproved on principle of women holding managerial posts,” she found out, so they would rather resign than consider her for a promotion. “I was devastated by this: it felt like a very personal rejection,” she recalled.

Men resigned from boards because they didn't want to promote women!

And when she was unable to get contracts early on, she took her husband’s suggestion that she start signing her letters with her nickname instead: “Steve.”

Writers to this day use male pseudonyms to sell books and there are studies on how women hiding their gender on GitHub get pull requests accepted at a higher rate.

The arrangement of using remote workers to manage projects worked so well that Ann would go on to become technical director at the company, in charge of more than 300 home-based programmers.

Did you know this? It's the 60s and Ann Moffatt led a programming team for the Concorde project. All home based programmers, using the phone to coordinate. I have seen companies today failing to adjust to half a dozen remote workers with all the technology anyone can possibly dream of :D Yesterday Microsoft released a human sized screen for teams to collaborate remotely...

So determined were ministers within government that they needed a cadre of male, management-oriented technocrats that they began, counterintuitively and in desperation, to lower the standards of technical skill needed for the jobs. Lowering standards of technical proficiency to create an elite class of male computer workers didn’t work, however. In fact, it made the problem worse, by producing a devastating labor shortage.

This reminds me of some men going around saying that standards shouldn't be lowered for women or minorities.

In conclusion: women were largely erased from Britain's history of computing because they didn't fit the narrative and sexism contributed to the failure of its tech industry.

I've always wondered how technology (not just computing tech) would be now if society didn't basically forbid half of its population to work for so long.

Discussion

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I've always wondered how technology (not just computing tech) would be now if society didn't basically forbid half of its population to work for so long.

I am certain progress would have been much faster in every way had major blind spots not been so forcefully baked into the process.

Many bad choices would have been avoided if this monoculture hadn’t become so trendy.

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ruvans profile image
Ruth Evans

... the “backwater” of computer work, which had still not fully shaken its association with low-level, feminized labor. Machine work in general was viewed as unintellectual and working-class, ensuring that men of the desired background had little interest in being swept up in the “industrialization of the office.”

A few years ago a manager was asked what my role was, when I said I was a programmer she was impressed, "wow, you must be so smart!" (I'm not 😅). Amazing how much the reputation of computer work has changed in 40-odd years.

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rhymes profile image
rhymes Author

Hi Ruth! Amazing indeed...

Let's hope it gets better and better (at least until we will all be jobless because of AI :D)

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ruvans profile image
Ruth Evans

Yes I hope it gets better and more inclusive!

(Until the day we all serve our AI betters 😁)

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carlymho profile image
Carly Ho 🌈

Yeah, this bit of history is honestly fascinating and horrifying. Even with our problems now, it's still hard for me to believe that discrimination used to be so completely shameless :\

For more reading on this, I'd recommend goodreads.com/book/show/32078427-p... by Marie Hicks—it's on the academic side, so it's a little dense, but it's very thorough.

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rhymes profile image
rhymes Author

Thank you!

Marie Hicks is the author of the article I mentioned! Thanks for the suggestion!

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carlymho profile image
Carly Ho 🌈

Oh, haha, that's what I get for not paying attention to the byline!

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cathodion profile image
Dustin King

Writers to this day use male pseudonyms to sell books and there are studies on how women hiding their gender on GitHub get pull requests accepted at a higher rate.

You gotta do what you gotta do, but it shouldn't have to be that way.

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defiance profile image
Defiance Black

Lowering standards of technical proficiency to create an elite class of male computer workers didn’t work, however.

I wonder, then, what people expect from the recent (and ultimately ineffective) pushes/quotas for more women in STEM?

Also, I wonder what changed between say... the 60s, where a woman coded men to the moon, and the 90s, where a man interested in computing was too dorky for the attention of your average woman. The stigma was not insignificant. If you remember the "talk nerdy to me" of the mid 00s, you see when the collective of women began to think code was cool again -- then the number of self identifying "nerdy" females has only increased.

Multiple things changed, I think, and it's not entirely that "men decided to kick women out and that is the end of the story."

The recent pushes for more women in STEM should see more success than it has, given women were the original programmers, which I'm sure we won't hear the end of until forever.

Just saying.

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rapidnerd profile image
George Marr

Studying this topic in school always had me fascinated, if it wasn't for women in tech a lot of what we currently have either wouldn't be the same or be no where near as good as it now. Personal favourite of mine is Grace Hopper who invented the compiler in 1959, if it wasn't for her the technology we have now would be miles behind.

It's sad to see that women were being erased from the tech history back in these times, their contributions were as much as important as anyone elses. Thankfully we're in a generation now where this isn't the case.

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lexlohr profile image
Alex Lohr

Even worse, one of the fathers of modern computing, Alan Touring, was convicted for being homosexual. He had it even worse than the women in tech then.

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scottishross profile image
Ross Henderson

Turing*

He had such a sad story. Literally helped stop WWII but because of his sexual orientation they chemically castrated him, because it was illegal to be gay, and he killed himself.

The UK has done a lot of horrible things to a lot of people, but I'll be honest: It is very quickly resolving these problems. Let's just hope it's not too late.

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lexlohr profile image
Alex Lohr

Damn autocorrect... :)

There's another tragedy looming ahead and it's Brexit. It will cause many talented developers and engineers to seek their fortune elsewhere, pulling the tech industry even further behind the rest of Europe.