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Recoding Gender

Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing

Janet Abbate
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Recoding Gender
    Book Description:

    Today, women earn a relatively low percentage of computer science degrees and hold proportionately few technical computing jobs. Meanwhile, the stereotype of the male "computer geek" seems to be everywhere in popular culture. Few people know that women were a significant presence in the early decades of computing in both the United States and Britain. Indeed, programming in postwar years was considered woman's work (perhaps in contrast to the more manly task of building the computers themselves). In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate explores the untold history of women in computer science and programming from the Second World War to the late twentieth century. Demonstrating how gender has shaped the culture of computing, she offers a valuable historical perspective on today's concerns over women's underrepresentation in the field. Abbate describes the experiences of women who worked with the earliest electronic digital computers: Colossus, the wartime codebreaking computer at Bletchley Park outside London, and the American ENIAC, developed to calculate ballistics. She examines postwar methods for recruiting programmers, and the 1960s redefinition of programming as the more masculine "software engineering." She describes the social and business innovations of two early software entrepreneurs, Elsie Shutt and Stephanie Shirley; and she examines the career paths of women in academic computer science. Abbate's account of the bold and creative strategies of women who loved computing work, excelled at it, and forged successful careers will provide inspiration for those working to change gendered computing culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30546-4
    Subjects: Technology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Rediscovering Women’s History in Computing
    (pp. 1-10)

    Many people are surprised to discover that women have a long history in computing. In the United States and Great Britain, the nations covered in this book, women today hold a relatively low percentage of computer science degrees and technical computing jobs, and popular stereotypes of male computer geeks abound. Yet women were a significant presence in the early decades of computing. They made up the majority of the first programmers during World War II; they held positions of responsibility and influence in the early computer industry; and they were employed in numbers that, while a small minority of the...

  5. 1 Breaking Codes and Finding Trajectories: Women at the Dawn of the Digital Age
    (pp. 11-38)

    During the Second World War, women like Jean Beech and Jean Jennings ventured into a wholly new field—digital computing. They were neither intimidated by the noisy, room-sized machines that they encountered nor deterred by any sense that they were entering a masculine domain. Instead, the accounts of women who worked on wartime computer projects convey a sense of excitement, fun, and pride at mastering a challenging task and contributing to the Allies’ eventual victory.

    This sense of the importance, high status, and sheer joy of working with computers still motivates women to choose careers in software or computer science...

  6. 2 Seeking the Perfect Programmer: Gender and Skill in Early Data Processing
    (pp. 39-72)

    In the early decades of digital computing, programming was seen as a methodical process based on scientific principles, yet the practice of hiring programmers seemed just the opposite. From the 1950s into the 1970s, employers and industry pundits complained about the difficulty of identifying talented applicants. The comments quoted above, written by business sociologist Ida Russakoff Hoos, scolded the managerial readers of theHarvard Business Reviewfor their lack of personnel standards for electronic data processing (EDP), as computing was commonly known in the business world. They were echoed by Elmer Kubie, who had cofounded one of the world’s first...

  7. 3 Software Crisis or Identity Crisis? Gender, Labor, and Programming Methods
    (pp. 73-112)

    To judge from some of their professional literature, software developers have lived in a state of perpetual crisis from the 1950s to today. Experts have complained that there are drastic shortages of skilled programmers, that software management is disorganized and workers undisciplined, and that large software projects are too often late, over budget, and full of bugs. But other practitioners, as well as some historians of computing, have treated this sense of alarm with skepticism. As an article in the UKComputer Journalscoffed in 1998, “Ever since the coining of the term ‘software engineering’, software engineering has constituted itself...

  8. 4 Female Entrepreneurs: Reimagining Software as a Business
    (pp. 113-144)

    Work-family balance is a much-debated problem in the early twenty-first century, posing difficult choices for both women and men. But in the mid-twentieth century, female programmers such as Stephanie Shirley faced the more fundamental issue of whether it was even possible—or socially acceptable—to combine what had long been considered separate spheres. If they had children, their careers often ran up against what legal scholar Joan Williams has dubbed “the maternal wall,” a combination of biased attitudes and inflexible work structures that block women’s professional advancement.²

    This chapter draws on the lives of female software entrepreneurs to illustrate both...

  9. 5 Gender in Academic Computing: Alternative Career Paths and Norms
    (pp. 145-176)

    Despite a long history of female accomplishment in computing, women’s participation in academic computer science remains low and may even be declining. Women’s share of U.S. computer science bachelor’s degrees increased from 15 percent in 1966 to a peak of 37 percent in 1984, but these promising gains did not last: by 2008, the share of degrees earned by women fell to 18 percent² (figure 5.1). At the master’s degree level, the proportion of women peaked in 2000 at 33 percent and fell to 27 percent by 2008. The percentage of women earning Ph.D.s in computer science has not fallen...

  10. Appendix: Oral History Interviews Conducted For This Project
    (pp. 177-178)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 179-224)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-242)
  13. Index
    (pp. 243-248)