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The Hidden Figures of the British Computer Industry

This Oscars weekend Hidden Figures, the previously untold story of three brilliant African-American women working at NASA during the Space Race, is a favorite to win best picture at the 89th Academy Awards. Marie Hicks's new book Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing tackles similar issues of forgotten history, exploring how Britain lost its early dominance in computing by systematically discriminating against its most qualified workers: women.

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 Raceon which the movie is basedhas 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.

The British experience shows us what happens when skilled women workers doing high level technological labor are not simply disrespected, but actually systematically driven out of their jobs and out of the field. This exodus caused computing in Britain to collapse following an incredibly strong start: After creating the first digital electronic computer in the world and using it to help the Allies win World War II, Britain went on to a string of accomplishments in early electronic computing. They translated these accomplishments into a strong computing industry that seemed poised to compete with US technology on a global scale. Yet by the mid-1970s the British industry had imploded, gutted of the technological expertise and labor required for it success.

Without the many women technologists that had earlier on ensured the successful computerization of government and industry, British computing got re-organized into a powerless shadow of its former self, and ended up producing products that nobody wanted to buy. This was directly related to the labor problems caused by governmental and industry refusal to hire and promote women engaged in technical work—even ones who had already proven their skills.

The UK example shows the flip side of what Shetterly described: It helps us realize what could have gone horribly wrong if more women had left the field instead of staying and successfully fighting for their rights. The US could well have lost the Space Race as a result of its discriminatory practices that undermined the potential and the accomplishments of black women.

That the US still triumphed without undoing the structures of oppression that held black Americans and women back could be perverted to say that the historical lesson is that segregation and gender discrimination didn't really hurt America's global political or technological stature. But that would be a serious mistake and a misunderstanding of the past. In reality, the US did not win the space race in any sort of simple or clear sense. Early on, the US lost out repeatedly as the USSR made advance after advance. It was in fact the terror caused by the launch of Sputnik, and the fact that the Russians had also put the first person into orbit, that lit a fire under the US government and caused the frenzy of activity in Shetterly’s book. (The USSR, by contrast, made a point of putting women front and center alongside men from the beginning of the Space Race.)

The US came out of World War II relatively unscathed while the infrastructure and economies of its rivals had been devastated. Given this, the US should have done far better in the Space Race than it did. The fact that the US focused on landing a man on the moon late in the game—and succeeded at that—was related to lessons learned about neglecting and underestimating large sections of its labor force. Had the US undone more of the sexism and racism of its technological institutions it might have become an incredible powerhouse in the Space Race, rather than simply the country that could eke out the last win.

Comparing the history of the US and the UK shows how technology intersects with categories of oppression, and why gender, race, and class make a big difference to technological success. These distinctions still hurt nations’ technological output and their economies as a whole. Civil rights are important in and of themselves: They ensure we recognize the dignity and humanity of all and allow people the best chance to reach their full potential. But as we leave Black History Month and transition into Women's History Month, it's important to remember that civil rights not only improve people's quality of life but also fundamentally ensure the success of nations and their institutions on a grander scale.

Marie Hicks holds degrees in history from Harvard and Duke and is an assistant professor of history at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Find her online at mariehicks.net or on Twitter at @histoftech.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.