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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: Apr 4 2013

Today, women hold less than 20 percent of the positions in computer science and programming. The detailed research for this book chronicles the shifting role gender has played in this field. In addition to her meticulous references, the author interviewed 52 women during the ten years she spent working on this book.

The five chapters in the book lay out a timeline of the role of gender in computing. The story begins with the surprising history of women’s strong contributions to secret projects during World War II; moves to the contributions of the earliest industrial programmers, the rapid inclusion and then exclusion of women in the field, and the emergence of a cottage industry of programmers in both the US and Great Britain; and ends with the current state of women in both academia and industry. The last 70 pages are appendices that include a list of the women interviewed, detailed footnotes for each chapter, and an extensive bibliography.

The author brings each of the time periods to life through engaging stories from both literature and her own oral history interviews with the women who lived the history. The bulk of the interviewing ended in 2002, but the final chapter of the book looks at more current times through the lenses of academic women and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) conferences, which include women from both industry and academia.

The opening chapter sets the tone, describing the women who worked on computing projects during WWII as “neither intimidated by the noisy, room-sized machines that they encountered nor deterred by any sense that they were entering a masculine domain. ... [They conveyed] a sense of excitement, fun, and pride” (p. 11). Recently released stories have revealed that women who worked in England on the Colossus project, known as the Bletchley Park Wrens, participated fully in the detailed technology work, but were also forced to participate in rigorous physical training that was not required of the men on the project. In the US, the women participating in the ENIAC ballistics calculations project were largely professional mathematicians; they were regarded as professionals and known as the “computers.”

The next chapter covers the emerging profession of programmer and hiring criteria for programming jobs. In many cases, women were thought to be ideal because of their “attention to detail.” One deterrent to women was the metric of number of lines of code produced rather the utility of the code itself. This seemed to favor males in both monetary reward and job promotion. The gender implications for women in computing were hardly clear in the large-scale computing developments of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The third chapter highlights the “shift in programming methods from a largely forgotten period where women played a major innovative role to a more recent era that saw the rise of engineering as a metaphor [where males dominated] and the shrinking role of women” (p. 109).

The penultimate chapter is a delightful recounting of the stories of two women in the 1950s and 1960s, one in Great Britain and the other in the US, who founded cottage industries employing stay-at-home mothers as ideal programmers. These stories underlined many of the issues facing women with families. Stephanie Shirley, the founder of Freelance Programmers Ltd., began signing her name as Steve in order to be taken seriously when she wrote to companies explaining her programming services.

The final chapter focuses mainly on women computer scientists in academia. Much of the chapter covers ways in which social networks, such as computing societies, online forums like Systers, and GHC, mitigate the somewhat hostile academic climate for women.

This is a must-read for gender researchers and computing historians. However, this book should be on every computing professional’s shelf. The explanations of the shifting attitudes toward the roles of women can inform both practitioners and management, leading to a more equitable balance of gender in the computing workplace.

Reviewer:  B. B. Owens Review #: CR141106 (1307-0615)
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