5. Meritocracy and Feminization in Conflict

Computerization in the British Government

Marie Hicks

"...however seemingly timeless and enormously powerful, the idea that the history of computing is a defeminized realm is belied by multiple, important historical examples."


At a Day, Inc., sportswear factory in 1972, man with computer-output microfilm equipment (above) controls women production workers (below) "on a projected-requirement basis."

Researchers, educators, and even businesses have recognized that the perception of computer work being masculine is in and of itself a stumbling block for women’s' entry and advancement in high technology fields, and leads to the suppression of the achievements of women who do advance. Thus, the period of time before computing was "man's work" is key in examining how this masculine ideal was constructed, and why. This chapter uses the British government as an example due to the size, scale, and importance of the state computing work, and because computing took many forms within the government, making gender discrimination across sectors of the British government instructive. It is also a key area of analysis because the of the British government’s commitment to equal pay and opportunity in the civil service.

The field of pre-electronic data processing was firmly a feminized domain, as the operation and programming of the machines was seen as deskilled work and was constructed as being at odds with the intellectual work of government officers. Prior to the Equal Pay Act of 1954, machine operation was deemed a "women's grade" job and recruiting focused exclusively on women, yet after 1954, these jobs were reclassified as "excluded grades," and their pay was not raised, on the rationale that the lower wages paid to women were the fair market price of machine labor. In higher classes of civil service, where the numbers of men and women were closer to equal, women saw pay equalization, but in data processing, men's wages were not lowered to the level that had been deemed fair to pay women, rather their job titles changed.

"The conflict between meritocratic ideals and the reality of hiring practices and workers' lives created a situation where seemingly equitable policies had very different effects on men and women."


Digital Equipment Corporation's smart terminal in 1972 featured BASIC programming and tape storage as well as "character string manipulation" for data editing.

The association of low-skill, low-pay, dead-end computing jobs with women became institutionalized after this, in part because of the association of machinery to manual labor rather than the intellectual work of an office, and in part because of the belief that this was unskilled work, despite the fact that in some departments, such as the Aeronautical Research Department, used specialized computer tools to code complex math problems. By 1955, the department reported that young men seemed to prefer laboratory work to computing because of the possibility of career advancement, and that women seemed to prefer the routine work of computing and, because of resignation upon marriage, did not mind the lack of career advancements. This shows that social expectations of men and women and their proper roles tended to create different job opportunities and career outcomes along gendered lines, even in a supposed meritocracy. The devaluation and perception of deskilled work enforced limited career opportunity and lack of pay for women, in turn keeping the field feminized.

Instead of utilizing the women programmers and operators already in place to run the new computers in the Central Tabulating Installation (Central Computing Bureau, as it was later known), young men were brought in because department heads saw computing as increasing in importance and scope, but none of these executives had familiarity with computer programming. Thus, the programming was initially done by the senior machine operator, a woman. She would also be responsible for training the new executive-level programmers in addition to all of the programming and testing of programs. She was given a temporary bonus in pay, and rather than a promotion she would eventually be demoted to an assistantship position under her former trainees, despite holding all of the requisite technical skills to hold a supervisory position. By 1961, government hiring managers were of the opinion that the former senior machine operators and punch-card workers could not handle the complex work of electronic computing and that too much training would be required to justify the continued use of feminized labor.

"Technical skill and aptitude, once again, were not the main concern; the primary issue at stake was wasting training for more complex automatic data processing machines on a workforce expected to have high turnover and short working lives."


Computer data punched on paper tape scrutinized by the masculine gaze.

Operator and programming work became increasingly separable and were sharply gender divided, with programmers coming from the 90% male executive class of workers and women continuing to make up 70% of operators. The majority of the new programming recruits did not have college degrees or any experience with the technical aspects of the job, making it hard to find and difficult to train them. The mid-1960s in Britain saw economic crisis, and one popularly suggested solution was to computerize departments to save money (despite no such savings having ever materialized). Recruiting and training tactics needed to be changed to deal with the shortage of programmers for these large installations, but the pay-scale was not industry-competitive and would not attract young men from the higher, executive levels of civil service.

Promises that applicants who didn't make the grade as programmers could return to their old posts (a promise which would have potentially wasted enormous amounts of time and money training unsuitable applicants) were needed to attract the desired candidates, as well as a paragraph explaining what programming work consisted of, since the applicants were not from machine-grade jobs. The age for promotion to the executive class was lowered from 28 to 25, changing the entire promotion structure of the civil service to cast a wider net for young men, rather than employing the women who were already suited for the position. Eventually postings were written to say they were "suitable for women" as well as men, but this did little to attract the few women who had risen to the executive level to potentially end up back in unskilled and dead-end work. Finally, the pool of applicants was expanded outside the ranks of the civil service, with advertisements explicitly calling for men and women and making it clear that no computing experience was necessary.

Gender discrimination remained a reality in the more gender-balanced workforce. Men occupied the majority of supervisory positions, and there were rules in place that prohibited women from wearing trousers despite the physicality of the job. Many women in the field were seen as "man-eaters" or sexually aggressive, particularly those that worked night shifts with men. Those who left to have children often did not come back to their old positions or came back to lower-paid positions. The temporary equality of opportunity in joining the computing workforce of the mid-1960s was short lived, and as economic conditions stabilized and programmer shortages disappeared, women found that they were frequently consigned to the least desirable positions or barred from entering the field at all. Young women began resigning from their computing positions due to job dissatisfaction and low pay.


Perhaps one, or two, male nonusers of computers pictured here at Argonne National Laboratory.

Rather than change these conditions to retain workers, many departments including the Royal Air Force, sought new types of workers to operate their machines, who had no career aspirations and didn't mind low wages. Young men were considered the best bet for computing careers if the pay was industry competitive and career advancement was guaranteed, and once economic conditions improved around 1969 and the government could afford to pay those competitive rates, women who were good at their programming and operating jobs were seen as no longer worth the money they were being paid, claiming it unfair to pay these "girls" an appropriate rate for their labor on the grounds that they were academically unqualified compared to clerical and executive officers. In theory, with no other avenues to promotion in the machine operator class, these young women could take examinations to move to clerical and executive classes and gain more responsibility and influence. In practice these promotions occurred quite rarely, but the mere possibility alarmed some, while young men who quickly rose through the career ranks were under no such similar scrutiny. Promotions of young women were deferred intentionally to stem the flow from machine operators to higher level positions, while at the same time government public service films were released encouraging young women to seek careers with advancement opportunities (of course women who did attempt this were met with a mix of subtle and overt disincentives and discrimination.) In 1970 when the government set up the new class of Automatic Data Processing work, machine operator class jobs were excluded, drawing objection (ignored) from the now largely female union.

5. Meritocracy and Feminization in Conflict