[SIGCIS-Members] NY TImes - "Secret History of Women in Coding"

Thomas Haigh thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Thu Feb 14 16:05:20 PST 2019


Hello SIGCIS,

 

I notice that the NY Times has published a lengthy piece, upcoming in the
magazine, by Clive Thompson (journalist and husband of New Yorker critic
Emily Nussbaum) called "The Secret History of Women in Coding".
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/magazine/women-coding-computer-programmin
g.html 

 

It is compressed from an upcoming trade book. Compared to the many other
popular pieces going over the same ground, I thought it was very strong.
There are some nice bits of human interest. He has dug into the literature a
bit and draws on work by several members of the SIGCIS community like Hicks,
Ensmenger, and Abbate. Notably, he mentions them in the text, rather than
just stealing their ideas. Likewise there are references to Fisher &
Margolis and more recent developments, running all the way up to the Google
memo. The Times even labels the well-known 1960s picture of women holding
storage circuits from four generations of BRL computers correctly (it's
often misrepresented as a picture of "the women of ENIAC").

 

Someone look for an article to assign for a class could do a lot worse. Even
as crochety academic I must admit there is a lot less wrong here than with
Walter Isaacson's take on the same subject, for example. There are, however,
three things that jumped out at me to grumble about.

 

First, the treatment of ENIAC. Thompson says that the famous first six women
were hired "to write instructions for ENIAC" which is wrong. They were hired
to operate the machine, and their role in designing configurations for it,
while considerable, emerged as work progressed. Also in ENIAC's original
control mode (used 1945-48) it's misleading to talk about "writing
instructions" - the women were diagramming wiring and switch configurations
and then setting them up on the machine. The term "coding" isn't really
applicable to this activity either.

 

Secondly, and much more importantly, the exclusive focus on programming
(here "coding") at the expense of all the other computer-related occupations
including key punch, operator, systems analyst, manger, supervisor, etc. in
the 1960s and more recently jobs like sysadmin, DBA, network technician,
user support, etc. In the later part of the article there's also a focus on
CS enrollments, in a way that implies most people doing coding come from
such programs. That's not accurate, at least historically.

 

Finally the title, which is both cliched and misleading. Probably not his
choice. Still, with all the work we've been doing as a community to spread
awareness of this, and with many articles, documentaries, etc. on the topic,
why is this still a "secret" history? It makes it sound as though we've all
been working hard to hide it and he had to break into a locked vault in the
bowels of the Vatican to liberate the truth.

 

I also feel that the article gives an unrealistically sunny picture of
gender equality in computing during the 1950s and 60s, and I'm not convinced
by the idea that an occupational hierarchy of "hardware high, software low"
existed early on in computer-using companies and was later inverted. ("At
the same time, the old hierarchy of hardware and software became inverted.
Software was becoming a critical, and lucrative, sector of corporate
America.") But I have seen related claims made in the scholarly literature,
and it's not unreasonable for Thompson to repeat them.

 

Best wishes,

 

Tom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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