Category: history of computing

My New Book

My book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Their Edge in Computing, has just been published by MIT Press, in their history of computing series. I’m enormously excited to be able to add to the literature in the history of gender, sexuality, and computing in this way, and I’m also glad to be giving several talks about the book around the country and in the UK in the coming months (see here for a schedule). If you’d like to read more about the book–including the full introduction–see the MIT Press page. In addition, I recently did an interview with ChicagoInno about it that provides a good overview of why we should care about the history of British computing, and how it’s a cautionary tale for the US in the 21st century.

What the Histories of Hidden Women Mean For Nations

I recently wrote a post for the MIT Press blog about the connections we can tease out between US history of computing and British history of computing. The two aren’t so similar as they may seem, and the things we can learn about the US from the British context might surprise you.

From the MIT Press Blog:

Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race has praised Programmed Inequality, saying, ”Marie Hicks’s well-researched look into Britain’s computer industry, and its critical dependence on the work of female computer programmers, is a welcome addition to our body of knowledge of women’s historical employment in science and technology. Hicks confidently shows that the professional mobility of women in computing supports the success of the industry as a whole, an important lesson for scholars and policymakers seeking ways to improve inclusion in STEM fields.” 

In this post, Marie Hicks explains why, even today, possessing technical skill is not enough to ensure that women will rise to the top in science and technology fields, how the disappearance of women from the field had grave macroeconomic consequences for Britain, and why the United States risks repeating those errors in the twenty-first century.


Margot Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures is a masterpiece of history of technology. It shows how the struggles of black women impact technological advance in ways that we still don’t pay enough attention to.

The film based on that book takes things in a more feel-good direction, telling audiences an inspirational story about the triumphs of NASA’s black women mathematicians or human “computers.” At the end of the movie, the United States is coming from behind in the Space Race, and though Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson are all still being denied their civil rights in the wider world, they emerge as heroes, and as respected movers and shakers at work. All’s well that ends well, the film seems to say.

Despite not allowing black citizens to reach their full potential in any sphere, the US still manages to “win” the Space Race by putting a man on the moon. The book shows how critical the submerged, highly skilled labor of these women was—why it was instrumental to US success—and finds a place for them in the canon of technological greats. A skeptical reader, however, might be inclined to question whether the contributions of these women really did make a “make or break” difference. Was there really such a strong connection between their work and the US winning the Space Race? Is there another case in which we can see the flip side of this scenario, where a nation has failed on the global stage because it did not harness the power of women’s technical skill?

As it turns out, there is a very good example of exactly this kind of failure. It’s the subject of my recent book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Their Edge in Computing. The twentieth century history of our closest historical cousin allows us to see very clearly what would’ve happened if NASA and the United States had done anything less than they did to leverage the skills of black (and white) women workers… Read the rest on the MIT Press website.

Test pattern SMPTE_Color_Bars

The #SIGCIS #DH panel at #SHOT2015

I was very glad to be a part of the digital history and humanities panel at the SIGCIS Workshop (part of the 2015 meeting of the Society of the History of Technology in Albuquerque this year), As background to my comments, I’ve provided my Digital Labor Class syllabus, which was my main contribution to the digital humanities degree we recently set up at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Cool Code, Bro: Brogrammers, Geek Anxiety and the New Tech Elite

Journalist Nick Parish recently published an e-book on privilege, sexism, and heteronormativity in high tech called: Cool Code, Bro: Brogrammers, Geek Anxiety and the New Tech Elite. In it, he discusses how the changing landscape of the American economy has helped shift the culture of tech.

Image by babyborg (Rene C.):

In the past three decades, we’ve seen the leading edge of the software industry go from privileging whiz kids to bad boys. In our attempts to come to grips with the new postindustrial age as workers and consumers, we’ve found that we’re becoming more and more wary of the hero stories coming out of Silicon Valley. What once seemed like boyish irreverence for social etiquette now seems an antisocial force that may be inimical to the very industry our economy relies upon. As the model of geek-chic has changed, so has the meaning. Or has it? Parish tries to figure all of this out, while giving a brief primer on how high technology and privilege interact in some disturbing ways.

His e-book is free to download today. Full disclosure: I was interviewed by Parish for this work and several of my articles are referenced within it, which how I know about it. You can read my writings on the subject here, here, and here. I’d also recommend the work of several others referenced in Parish’s e-book, particularly Kate Losse and Sapna Cheryan.

What I’ve Been Talking About…

Now that the term’s finally ended, I’m gratified to be able to reflect on what I’ve been up to for the past few months, in terms of conferences and presentations. This Fall was a really interesting time for me, because in addition to presenting at conferences that are old standbys for me, like the Society for the History of Technology, I was also glad to have the opportunity to make new connections in fields ranging from digital humanities to queer studies.

Here’s what I’ve been up to, with some links to available online versions of presentation materials where possible: Continue reading

History of Computing: Final Essays

Post your final project essays in the comments here by Tuesday, Nov. 19th at 9pm. Prepare the 6 minute oral portion of your project for Thursday’s class. (If you chose to use visuals, remember to include a link to your prezi in your comment–and make sure that your prezi is set to “public” so everyone can see it.) Please leave an extra line of whitespace between each of your papragraphs for formatting (otherwise they run together).

Themes in the history of computing

Last class we discussed some of the larger themes and trends that we’ve encountered so far in our study of computing history. Using those insights, do the following essay assignment which is due by 9pm on Saturday October 5th (a small extension from the due date listed on your syllabus). Your comment will not show up immediately, as I have to review and approve them.

Pick 2 themes we’ve discussed in class and encountered in the readings so far. Write an essay that shows how these themes align, or how they may seem to contradict each other, making sure you have a clear argument which teaches us something new and shows change over time. Length: 450-650 words. (This question will be a good review for the midterm exam on October 10th, so it’s worth putting in a bit of time and effort to ensure you have a good argument well-supported by evidence.)

Fall 2013: Test post for comments

If you’re a student in my “Disasters!” or “Computing in History” class this semester, please leave a test comment on this post so that you will be prepared to post your essay response when the first blog comment assignment is due. In your test comment, say what is your favorite spot on the IIT campus.

Remember to use the same screen name (doesn’t have to be your real name) throughout the term so I can identify your responses easily.

Your comment will not show up immediately as I need to approve each response manually.


Brogamming and Women’s History Month

For Women’s History Month I’ve been asked to do a blog post for the Computer History Museum on “Brogramming.” It’s not posted yet, but in the meantime I’ve decided to re-post, as background, another piece I did on the topic for the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society:

From Antisocial to Alphasocial: Exclusionary Nerd Cultures and the Rise of the Brogrammer

“Sometime in the last ten or twelve years, the stereotypical image of the Silicon Valley programmer has shifted from a socially awkward, Utili-kilt-wearing geek to something far more sinister, and fratty, and sexist,” begins the article in the Sfist. Recently, a new term for programmers in their 20s has come into the national consciousness: brogrammer. Half fratty “bro” and half programmer, as a whole the concept of the brogrammer is completely masculine. So is this latest reaction to the nerdy programmer stereotype a problem?

Many commentators have pointed out the damage that this new type of computing culture might have on women coders or potential coders. A recent Mother Jones article pointed out that if women are looking for a job in an environment where interviews by a committee can be casually referred to as “gang bang interviews,” they might be turned off by the workplace culture of a company before they even have the chance to work there.

And the phenomenon isn’t limited to just a few Silicon Valley startups. As a cultural archetype, it’s been gaining currency and power for the last year or so at an alarming rate: “the term has become the subject of a Facebook group joined by over 21,000 people,” notes Bloomberg Businessweek in their recent article.

Brogrammer cartoon from Bloomberg BusinessWeek article
Brogrammer cartoon from Bloomberg BusinessWeek article

It’s difficult to parse the different levels of irony—or genuine commitment—that those thousands of individuals feel for the brogrammer identity.  But this may be part of the problem. As the Mother Jones article indicates, several companies and their employees–when called on the sexism of the brogrammer ideal–excused themselves on the grounds that they were being ironic, and that people just weren’t getting the joke.

If it is a joke, and much of the brogrammer identity is certainly meant to be facetious, then “there’s also an audience that feels left out of the joke…. Anything that encourages the perception of tech as being male-dominated” will contribute to the decline of women in computing, warned Sara Chipps, quoted in Bloomberg. Chipps is the founder of Girl Develop It, which encourages women ask questions of other women programmers to minimize the intimidation factor of workplaces with a gender imbalance.

One thing missing in the recent flurry of discussions on brogramming and its ills is the fact that this issue isn’t really about women. It’s about gender. And the image of the straight, feminine woman the media invokes as likely to be turned off by a workplace environment where brogrammers hold sway is actually only one of many likely to be hurt by brogrammer culture.  A panoply of other people with different gender identities and sexual identities–men, women, or genderqueer–would likely be similarly unhappy in an environment that privileges a certain kind of retro, straight, masculine gender identity as normative or aspirational.

The other element that seems to be mostly missing from these conversations in the press is the historical element. Although each article quotes the obligatory handful of stats about women’s declining share of computer science degrees, they don’t go any further. And yet, in many ways, the rise of the brogrammer is unsurprising to historians: it’s just another iteration of the “alpha nerd” archetypes that have circulated since the inception of commercial computing. From sixties-era self-styled wizards who held the key to the black art of programming; to mischievous whiz kids like Gates and Jobs who got their start in the wild west of computing in the seventies; to the scruffy, bearded, UNIX geeks who became mainstream in the nineties; to the most recent wave of fabulously wealthy boy wonders epitomized by Mark Zuckerberg and other start-up billionaires who fit a certain age, race, and gender profile.

The characters in these stories have appeared in the popular press for decades, gaining more and more currency with each repetition, and coming to define the narratives we tell ourselves and each other about computing. Those who don’t fit these molds end up disappearing, unrecognized and unrecognizable as technology workers because they clash with the popular images conjured and reinforced by media.

Historians of computing like Nathan Ensmenger, Janet Abbate, Tom Misa, Jennifer Light, myself, and others have shown how these images and discourses can’t be taken for granted as accurate: computing was never as masculine as our received popular conception makes it seem. And the recent furor over brogramming shows that it’s still not.