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Recoding gender : women’s changing participation in computing
Abbate J., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012. 264 pp.  Type: Book (978-0-262018-06-7)
Date Reviewed: Jul 11 2013

This is a well-researched look at the history of women in computing from the beginning of digital computing (around the time of the Second World War) until the more modern age (the late 20th century). It looks at this history from both the American and British perspectives.

The book consists of five chapters: “Breaking Codes and Finding Trajectories: Women at the Dawn of the Digital Age”; “Seeking the Perfect Programmer: Gender and Skill in Early Data Processing”; “Software Crisis or Identity Crisis? Gender, Labor, and Programming Methods”; “Female Entrepreneurs: Reimagining Software as a Business”; and “Gender in Academic Computing: Alternative Career Paths and Norms.” The research included a series of 52 oral histories from women conducted in 2001 and 2002. It is archived as part of the IEEE Global History Network (http://www.ieeeghn.org). There are also 60 pages of notes and an 18-page bibliography.

Having such a well-researched academic volume might give one the expectation that the material would be dry and boring. This is not the case at all. The book is filled with tidbits of history and fascinating reading. I found it interesting how, in the early decades of computing, women made up the majority of programmers. The precision required for the work seemed like a “natural” match for women. As the field redefined itself more in the direction of software engineering, the population of women dwindled and has never caught back up.

An interesting section describes how women responded to and dealt with the unique characteristics of the computer field as it was initially growing. For example, two entrepreneurial women (Elsie Shutt and Stephanie Shirley) created freelance programming businesses. Their prime employees were women wanting to continue their professional lives while in the child-rearing stages, a very atypical combination. These women realized that programming really lent itself to telecommuting, making it well suited to part-time contract workers, also atypical at the time. They even employed tactics such as using sound effects in the home so it sounded like typing in an office and using masculine names. During this same time, the US and the UK both passed several laws requiring equal pay and eliminating the practice of firing pregnant women.

Since computing was a relatively new field, professional organizations were also just starting up. ACM’s openness was attractive to women. It provided support and allowed women to grow and learn professionally. Similar activities were also available through the IEEE and the British Computer Society (BCS). Many professional women found a place in this professional arena and some achieved high professional offices. Anita Borg started a mailing list (Systers) back in 1987, the first real community for women in computing. Her efforts culminated in the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She also joined ACM to sponsor the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 2008, this conference became one of the first computer science conferences to offer free, on-site childcare.

This book can be read by novices or experts in computing. Readers will enjoy learning about the progress of women in computing, the obstacles they faced, and the creative solutions that were generated. The well-known women in the field are in here, as well as lesser-known contributors. The author reveals the dynamics of the then-current culture. This book is good reading for anyone who would like to explore the challenges of setting policies and gain a better understanding of the gender dynamics of a scientific and technical workforce.

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Reviewer:  Maxine Cohen Review #: CR141353 (1309-0799)
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