I read "Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing" by Mar Hicks
| Review | ★★★★★
The experience of learning about systemic racism in the US is a constant derailing of “but we can’t know the actual intent”; systemic sexism on the otherhand is “oh, here are the receipts”. Which is not to discount the research and scholarship of author Mar Hicks, more just to say “wow, there it is”.
Programmed Inequality is focused on one particular aspect covered by the more surveyish Recoding Gender. To attempt to summarize a lot:
- Take a systemic inequality, like the Marriage Bar, which made it unlawful for women to keep their job once they became married.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that managers will invest less time in training and developing women in the workplace.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that women are less likely to be promoted into management and leadership.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that women will be tracked into roles and functions that do not offer training or management potential.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that roles and functions will be designed and shaped around these constraints and will develop bureacratic inertia.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that other roles and functions (who happen to be men, because of the previous reasonable assertions) will be bureacratically competing for power and resources and prestige with those feminized roles and functions (and the women who fill them). And it will be ugly.
- Then it’s reasonable to imagine that, people being people, on human timescales with human constraints, and talent being equally distributed even when opportunity is not, they’ll do their best to navigate and come to terms with it in different ways.
It’s a book about an 80 year trainwreck. It has some interesting details about deskilling, and also about femininization: how expertise is reframed as “temperment”.
Although government reports referred to the great mass of their women workers as doing the “ monotonous toutine work” that made up the broad base of the Civil Service “pyramid,” inquiries into the exact content and nature of machine operation commissioned by the Treasury itself repeatedly contradicted the characterizations of it as deskilled work.” These reports showed how machine workers needed many of the same skill sets as higher clerical workers and how machine operation jobs were best performed by higher-skill, more educated workers. Even machine workers at the lowest levels, who dealt with narrowly specialized calculations, possessed similar skills as clerical workers: “The lower grades of the technical part of the engineering field and the scientific Assistants are both fairly close to the Clerical Class in many respects,” admitted an internal Treasury memo. Despite this, most women workers were now partitioned off from the higher-status clerical class. Eventually, the machine operator class would have three levels: The entry-level rung was the position of machine assistant. The middle rung of machine operator, took on more complex work. Women would rise to machine operator in their midtwenties. The top grade was senior machine operator. These women would perform the most complicated work in the class, including programming and systems analysis. The expectation was for women to attain that rank in their later twenties or early thirties, because at that point promotion and pay increases ceased–much earlier than for workers in clerical jobs. The structure of the new class enforced a shortened, dead-end career, partly because of the idea that women should leave by this point to get married and take care of a family, but also as a reflection of the low worth accorded to this work. Many Civil Service leaders in this era could not conceive of technical or machine-aided office work as interesting, as complex, or as providing preparation for higher work. The fact that the association of women with machine work in offices had initially evolved from women’s association with typewriteers helped reinforce this attitude. Yet the machine class was not simply a reflection of the status quo. It was the Treasury’s attempt to deal with rising numbers of women employees by reorganizing the government’s postwar workforce.
And surfaces a lot of stuff that’s seemingly baked into computing and labor relations:
Even before White Heat raised the profile of computing, a 1962 overview of government computing policy reported that the government hoped to recruit most programmers from the ranks of the seventy thousand workers in the executive class–the management class of workers with A-level secondary school training, but without the university training of the higher administrative class or any particular skill set commonly associated with early programming expertise. Executive class officers dealt with long-term departmental goals and developed processes for greater efficiency. They were also overwhelmingly men. Paradoxically, these new recruits were thought to be more qualified for the technical aspects of computer jobs even though they lacked any machine experience. The tacit expectation was that higher-level civil servants would be more intelligent overall and therefore would have no trouble picking up supposedly lowly technical skills. A widespread belief persisted in government that work involving machines did not require much intellect. Yet the Treasury’s initial feelings that “the operation of computers was expected to be similar to that of punched card equipment and thus proper to SMOs [senior machine operators]” was giving way to the idea that computing jobs were actually too complex and required too much training to continue using feminized labor. “ Although a number of staff currently graded in the MO (Machine Operator) class are demonstrably suited to be computer operators,” opined one 1966 report, “it must not be assumed that all machine operators capable of traditional responsibilities for that class have in fact ‘operating’ ability.”
This shift in attitude reflected the rigidity of the class hierarchies of the Civil Service. Even though government workers were supposed to be able to rise through the ranks meritocratically, by means of examinations, those in the lower classes of the service were often seen as fundamentally inferior to those at higher levels. As a result, there was little focus on grooming workers already in computer posts for higher positions. Instead “better” workers would be brought in from the executive class and trained to do those jobs. Whether the nation was headed by Labor or the Conservatives, the highest administrators within the service remained relatively constant in their opinions about modernization within government. “It was early on decided that for most programming orderical operations one did not need graduates in mathematics or other Growledge of professional standard, but a reasonable level of intelligence and certain aptitudes,” explained an organization specialist in the Treasury who authored a 1962 report titled “Electronic Computers Oil the Wheels of Government,” Management potential and a broad understanding of the workings of government agencies were the key qualities the Treasury now sought in computer workers.