In the 2008 book “Dreams That Glitter”, telling the story of the English pop group Girls Aloud, one of its members, the late Sarah Harding, said: “I’ve got a t-shirt that says ‘Well-behaved women don’t make history’. Funny how the stylist gave that to me…”
It is hard to read Mar Hicks’ book “Programmed Inequality” and not feel utter horror. As I try to piece this article, I do not know where to begin.
I have witnessed first hand the intrinsic, inherent, systemic, and absolute misogyny of the software industry. The following is a true story.
A few years ago I worked for a rather big organization in Zürich (whose name you have heard in the news) as a mobile iOS developer. My team was looking for an Android developer, and during our search we had the immense chance of having a young woman coming into our office for an interview. Said first interview happened in our device testing room, where a series of iOS and Android devices laid dormant waiting for some app to be installed and run upon them.
As soon as she entered, she started describing how some of the Android devices we had chosen for our testing lab were unfortunate misguided choices; either because of proprietary extensions, factory settings, or other configurations. My project manager was eager to follow his agenda of questions, but I stopped him; I wanted her to tell me everything she knew about Android. She was passionate, knowledgeable, eager to explain, to the lowest levels of abstraction. She knew Android like nobody we had met.
In my mind it was an absolute
#instahire moment, particularly compared to all of the previous candidates we had interviewed.
For my manager, not so much. After she left, he approached me and almost whispering, paying attention not to be heard, he dismissed her with a single phrase, one that I will never forget. “Women aren’t as good developers as men.”
Rubbing my eyes was not enough, nor raising my eyebrows above my front, nor scrubbing my ears. I just replied a single phrase: “if you don’t hire her, I quit.” And I walked away.
We ended up hiring her, and yes she really was one of the brightest mobile engineers I have ever had the chance to work with. But I quit anyway a few months after that, because that manager was one of the most horrible people I have ever had the disgrace of working for.
In many places, misogyny is still systemic and widespread nowadays as it was in 1950s United Kingdom, according to Ms Hicks.
I defy any reader of this masterpiece of research and storytelling not to feel appalled to learn in chapter 2 (“Data Processing in Peacetime”) that the Civil Service Clerical Association (CSCA) worker union, the same one that was supposed to protect workers regardless of their origin, sex, or identity, sided with government officials in opposing equal pay for women, deeming it… “derogatory for men,” in a historical clash with the National Association of Women Civil Servants (NAWCS).
How small a brain (I am trying to remain polite here) must a man have to vomit such unspeakable idiocy? But that was precisely the level of opinion held by all spheres of power in those days. And by many men, even today.
In another epic sequence, the third chapter of Ms. Hicks’ book (“Luck and Labor Shortage”) brings memories of the movie “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam; I will not spoil the reader any details, but these quotes should give an idea:
If labor could not be made fully invisible, at least it could be made less obtrusive by using temporary, high-turnover women workers with no claim to equal wages, job training, or promotion opportunities.
Chapter 4 (“The Rise of the Technocrat”) dives into the 1965 worker strike in International Computers and Tabulators (ICT):
The response of ICT’s management to the strike was telling. It reflected a shift already underway toward making computer workers an integral, and ideally interchangeable, subsection of middle management. Rather than giving in to the maintenance engineers’ demands, ICT used professional workers from their management and supervisory staffs to take the place of the striking workers.
Software developers, raise your heads from the keyboard. The world you are living in has been a work in progress for the past 60 years.
This book is yet another triumph in the History of Computing series of MIT Press, a invaluable collection presented to us by their series editors, William Aspray and Thomas J. Misa.
The issue of underrepresentation and open discrimination of women in the software industry is far from over. Women are still earning less than men for the same work in pretty much every domain. They are underrepresented and ignored at every level of decision-taking structures. Taking into account society at large, they are actively harassed, dismissed, and even killed, and the perpetrators of such abjections are set free by other men.
As described by Tears for Fears, our current world is best described as a coalition of men against women.
The United Kingdom has no monopoly in this area. In Switzerland, the land from where I happen to write these notes, women not only could not vote in federal matters until 51 years ago, they could even be prevented from opening a bank account if their husband opposed… until 1985. In some cantons of this country, women could not vote until 1991. Up until the 2000s, pregnant women could be fired without compensation in many cantons. Let those facts sink in.
In the first installment of the outsanding, excellent show “What If…?” we discover a parallel universe in the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, where Peggy Carter becomes Captain Carter after getting the injection of superserum originally intended for Steve Rogers.
In spite of the large Union Jack in her chest, a nod to Geri Halliwell’s eponymous dress sprinkled with a savant touch of Rosie the Riveter, Peggy Carter becomes “Captain Carter”, and not “Captain Britain,” a possible choice according to the patronym adopted by Steve Rogers for his alter ego.
Her name choice is perfectly understandable; at least in our universe, I do not think the country described by Mar Hicks neither deserved a Peggy Carter of that caliber, nor all the women that built the computer industry in this, our universe, before their field, recognition, and profits were usurped by men.
As appealing as it is, the Marvel series leaves many questions unanswered. In all likelihood, in spite of her services to Her Majesty, it is very possible that Peggy Carter was grossly underpaid, and that her outstanding achievements towards mankind were dismissed, assigned to some male counterpart, conveniently forgotten, or otherwise blatantly ignored.
And no, there is no Schadenfreude in learning from Mar Hicks that said misogyny was a leading cause of the gradual decline of the British software industry during the second half of the twentieth century. I, for one, would have preferred to see both women and men sharing the success of a great achievement, instead of seeing men bitterly complaining about a lost opportunity… yet not even acknowledging its root cause.
It’s under my skin but out of my hands
I’ll tear it apart but I won’t understand
I will not accept the greatness of man
It’s a world gone crazy
Keeps woman in chains
Cover photo from MIT Press.