Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing

Banner image of Colossus Mark 2, Ball, Simmers, Taylor, Beck, Sec holding ENIAC and EDVAC boardsFrom left to right: Dorothy Du Boisson and Elsie Booker operating a Colossus Mark 2 computer1; Cheryl E. Ball2; Patsy Simmers holding ENIAC board, Gail Taylor holding EDVAC board, Milly Beck holding ORDVAC board, and Norma Stec holding BRLESC I board3.


book cover of Abbate's book


Estee's Literacy Narrative

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For most of its history, modern computing technology has often celebrated the spirit of technological advancement: Anyone with an interest in machine language, algorithmic computation, or developing devices to support information exchange can and should contribute to making things and solving problems. Equally celebrated in its history are narratives of men—directing, developing, circulating, managing, and overseeing the expansion of electronic machine computation. Perhaps it is no surprise to remark that modern computing technology, along with its associated fields, has long been male-dominated. Of course, and in all fairness, public and academic literature often cites and recognizes pioneers Ada Lovelace and Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper as experts in computer science. But, what of other women? What names readily come to mind as innovators in modern computing technology? What are the stories of these women who sacrificed raising children, who violated social contracts and expectations, and who dared to give their intellect and labor in a field dominated by men?

In seeking answers to such questions, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society Janet Abbate sought narratives of women who worked tirelessly in the interest of computer science. As a result, Abbate’s work provides a strong historical overview of the material and political factors that limited the roles of women in the computer science industry, including academic computing, and situates how women’s participation in programming ultimately defined a field in her book, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (2012).

As a historical work, Abbate informs readers of the social mechanisms and gender discrimination women programmers faced during the 20th century. The five chapters address tensions women faced because of workplace discrimination, largely the result of social norms that dictated the roles women could occupy—that of caregiver and homemaker without social rebuke. In turn, Abbate addressed how women subverted these roles by creating alternative pathways for success—in often gendered spaces. For some, women’s rhetorics provided an ethos for leading technical innovations, while for others making provisions for on-site childcare or arranging for work and family balance (this occurred in the later part of the 20th century) meant having the ability to make professional contributions. Abbate positioned the women she interviewed as entrepreneurs, innovators, and problem-solvers, thereby pointing to the significant contributions women made within computer science. As the many stories that Abbate wove into her historical account illustrate, women challenge the culture of computer programming by leaning in to workplace cultures and actively creating space for support and mentorship of women.

In the early chapters, Abbate emphasized the cultural conditions women faced during World War II and its aftermath, by describing the ways women redefined male-oriented, gendered assumptions of women’s abilities and intelligence through tenacity and rhetorical savviness. Several of the computing pioneers subverted gendered cultural scripts by using tropes from the roles of homemaker and caregiver as skills that imbued women with skilled knowledge in caring for machine processes. In doing so, these inventive women worked from the margins, redefining gender and identity for future generations to heed.

The subversion of gendered scripts is perhaps the most noticeable theme in Abbate’s work, especially with the notion of women using feminine stereotypes as a means to position their authority in a field not often welcoming to female colleagues. For example, Abbate remarked how Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper used parenting metaphors “for dedicated effort, not unskilled drudgery,” not as a means to acknowledge the gendered assignments coded upon women but in ways that promoted women as skilled and knowledgeable programmers (p. 70). In recognizing the women entrepreneurs of programming, Abbate counted business executive, Stephanie Shirley as an early pioneer who recognized the importance of balancing raising children with employment by starting Freelance Programmers Ltd. in the early 1960s. Her company sponsored employment opportunities for part-time, home-based female programmers. Later renamed F International (FI), Shirley’s company became a leading software service company with revenues in excess of £450 million in 2002 (p. 127). These two examples, among so many in Abbate’s book, illustrate how women focused on gendered norms of their era found ways to challenge and recast assumptions about women in the workplace.

As a woman, teacher, scholar, newcomer, and co-author of this webtext, Estee Beck read this book with great interest because of continued existence of gendered norms with technology as the discourse surrounding #gamergate has illustrated. She also connected Abbate’s historical [re]telling of women’s roles in computing to that of community discussions and scholarship with leaders in computers and writing, some of whom are represented pictorially in this webtext. The efforts of so many who have shaped computers and writing represent a movement toward valuing the contributions of women, men, and trans-identified in ways that foster inclusion, support, and mentorship from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. As a result of her experiences with technology, Estee reflected upon her own technological literacy narrative, available in this audio file, in relation to gender and technology and collaboration with co-authors Kris Blair and Mariana Grohowski on this project.

Turning back to Abbate, with this vision of inclusivity in mind, there is a noticeable narrative in Abbate’s work of privileging the contributions of White middle-class women. This privileging leaves more questions than answers. In many ways, this narrative touces upon a concern expressed by Cynthia Selfe in an interview with Estee available in Computers & Composition. During the 2013 Computers & Writing conference, Selfe noted there were not many people of color in attendance, and she asked, “What is our understanding of technology and cultural contexts that technology is used in such a way that has raced our scholarship in the field, and maybe provided a disincentive for people of color to enter the field?” (Beck, 2013, p. 353). Such a question may very well be asked for the field and history of computer science, in addition to providing scholarly attention to the narratives in Abbate’s work.

In many ways, the discourse(s) surrounding computer technologies tend toward gendered and raced assumptions about ability and skill, as Judy Wajcman (2004) covered in Technofeminism. Disrupting these assumptions means acknowledging the ideological values guiding such practices, and the narratives Abbate wove into the historical retelling of computer programming illustrates the power of rich descriptions. Comparatively, Kristine Blair (2012) has elsewhere contributed, “the role of narrative is most powerful for women and girls to articulate their relationships (e.g., agency) to technology within academic and social spaces” (p. 64). By revealing the stories and lived experiences of women programmers, Abbate’s account of the history of computer programming shows the reality of the social and cultural conditions women faced, and how they worked to change computing for future generations.

Such a history of computer programming will remain relevant to the fields of computers and writing, scientific and technical communication, computer science, gender studies, and communications. For educators who incorporate historical discussions of technical computing in curricula, Abbate’s (2012) book provides a history that simply cannot be overlooked. The political and social realities women face today in programming and computing often leave women with little incentive to remain in fields that focus on deskilling and devaluing the contributions of women. Given this concern, it is imperative that such projects as Abbate’s work in her book illustrate, circulate alongside historical treatments of computer science to help disrupt the troubling gendered assumptions that persist in contemporary workplace settings, as Sheryl Sandberg (2013) noted in Lean In.

In the final sentence of Abbate’s (2012) book, she wrote, “Perhaps their stories can inspire future initiatives toward gender equality” (p. 175). As Abbate proved, and Blair (2012) acknowledged elsewhere, narrative provides power through agency. Stories collectively bind people to others, places, and events. Stories empower and inspire people to change. Stories provide historical context. Stories sustain the lore of campfire conversations had at Computers & Writing or through listserv exchanges. Stories also inform others to the problems so many marginalized people face within information technology. Stories, like that of Sheryl Sandberg’s (2013), which shares in the joys and burdens women face today, pulse and provide meaning in shifting political, cultural, and technological landscapes.


1 Photo courtesy of The National Archives (UK) record FO850/234

2 Photo by Ivan Brodey, courtesy of Cheryl E. Ball

3 Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army, from the archives of the ARL Technical Library

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