6AM Book Club: Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks


This book made me angry. In a righteous indignation kind of way. Programmed Inequality is a fine piece of historical work by Marie Hicks and it’s a much needed historical insight into Britain’s role in computing in the 20th Century.

You should read it too, especially if:

  • you’ve ever wondered what happened to Britain’s computing prowess after the pioneering Bletchley Park era,
  • if you’ve ever wondered what led to women being woefully under-represented in the tech industry today and,
  • if you’ve ever been curious about the government’s approach to computing and whether they’re at the risk of repeating similar mistakes.

I was fascinated and angered by Programmed Inequality because I have a few vested interests. I’m a woman in Britain (although I’m not British), who studies and works in government technology (specifically, digital transformation). Marie Hicks provides contexts for why things are the way they are. It made me angry because it’s so close to home. Yes, it’s about how inequality came about for women in the computing sector in mid-century Britain, but it also reflects inequality for women more broadly in British society at the time.

Hicks presents a thorough history of women in 20th Century British computing, plotting the trajectory of women from Bletchley Park through to the mid-1970s and beyond. They chart the hopes of women to be kept on in meaningful computing work past the end of World War Two, as computing gained bureaucratic prominence in the civil service.

But what we are presented with are attempts by successive senior civil servants and officials (including the predominantly male-led civil service union at the time) to keep women in stagnant pay grades and stunted career paths. See, I told you this book would make you angry.

More broadly, Hicks describes the economic and technocratic aspirations of UK governments from both ends of the political spectrum throughout the 1960s. They describe how protectionist policies – such as heavily taxing foreign computing suppliers and mandating that government departments purchase British computers – were put in place to help the government realise these aspirations. This meant that the Civil Service required more staff, all the while refusing to allow women with existing skills to move up in the ranks. Marie Hicks argues that Civil Service policy at the time was not only sexist, but classist, as they detail plans to move more executive, yet technically inexperienced male civil servants into computing roles, in the hopes of making computing a career path worthy of male aspiration.

This lead to a false shortage of skills, along with situations where those were trained at the Civil Service’s expense soon left to pursue roles in the private sector. The executives who were trained often left computing roles, finding that they wanted to pursue more standard Civil Service roles. If you’re not angry at the sex discrimination, you may be angry at the flagrant waste of expertise, training and taxpayers’ money.

But how far has Britain really come? A few weeks ago while reading the book on the bus, I angrily tweeted an image of the book by way of illustrating how the issues facing the UK today haven’t shifted past the 1970s. Here’s an extract of that:

Britain endeavoured to strengthen its economy looking abroad to membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), or Common Market, for its economic survival. The nation struggled with inflation, a faltering economy, and labor unions unwilling to accept the state’s austerity measures… Yet inclusion in the EEC required a kind of socioeconomic modernization that, despite decades of technological “revolution,” Britain still lacked. Rejected from entry twice in 1963 and 1967, Britain was only able to gain acceptance in 1973. An important requirement of EEC membership was sex discrimination legislation. EEC leadership considered equal opportunity and equal pay to be characteristics of well-functioning, modern economies. This threatened to undo the gender stratification of the British labor force and the economic savings that came with it…

Hicks, M. (2017) Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, 1 edition., Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

Here we are in 2019, on the eve of Brexit (although are we? who knows) and after years of austerity measures we still don’t have equal pay and genuinely equal opportunity is questionable.

Although, while the nation may be going around in circles, I can only speak positively about the Government Digital Service and their inclusivity based on my time working there and alongside their staff. The Civil Service has made changes for better in the intervening 40 years where Hicks ends their book.

But what struck me as someone who has worked in and around the UK public sector’s digital transformation efforts is that the ebbs and flows between centralisation and decentralised computing can be traced back to the era that Hicks describes. This is a central tension with computing in the UK government: directives and policies are centralised (most recently by the establishment of the Government Digital Service) but slowly begin to become decentralised to departments who are given their own autonomy. But then there is a swift return to centralisation which causes upheaval amongst the civil service and all who sail within her, which is to be expected when suddenly you’re no longer trusted to make your own technology decisions. In this sense, the book is a must-read for civil servants new and experienced to develop their understanding of their own organisation’s approach to technology over the decades.

I left Programmed Inequality feeling that righteous indignation and wanting to know what happened next in the UK tech industry. I partly know the answer to that question from speaking with former colleagues with institutional knowledge and, I’m currently researching the pre-digital transformation era as part of a pilot study. I’m learning more about the series of events that lead to the formation of the Government Digital Service, but many of the answers lie further back than the immediate past, they reach back 30 -40 years at least.

How would I teach Programmed Inequality?

What impresses me most about Programmed Inequality from a research perspective is how thoroughly researched it is and how much care Marie Hicks takes with their living participants. They recently tweeted a thread on tracking down a newspaper advertisement from the 1960s for a participant to use as part of a work reunion. Hicks is a historian by trade and training, so as a digital sociology lecturer I would want to use Programmed Inequality to demonstrate how valuable archival research is in understanding technological issues in society. But more than that, I would want to use their work to demonstrate how inequality has been at play in the technology sector and society for such a long time.

Reference details
Hicks, M. (2017) Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, 1 edition., Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.