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Hardcover | $36.00 Short | £29.95 | 264 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 figures | October 2012 | ISBN: 9780262018067
Paperback | $25.00 Short | £19.95 | 264 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 figures | August 2017 | ISBN: 9780262534536
eBook | $18.00 Short | October 2012 | ISBN: 9780262306379
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Recoding Gender

Women’s Changing Participation in Computing


Today, women earn a relatively low percentage of computer science degrees and hold proportionately few technical computing jobs. Meanwhile, the stereotype of the male “computer geek” seems to be everywhere in popular culture. Few people know that women were a significant presence in the early decades of computing in both the United States and Britain. Indeed, programming in postwar years was considered woman’s work (perhaps in contrast to the more manly task of building the computers themselves). In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate explores the untold history of women in computer science and programming from the Second World War to the late twentieth century. Demonstrating how gender has shaped the culture of computing, she offers a valuable historical perspective on today’s concerns over women’s underrepresentation in the field.

Abbate describes the experiences of women who worked with the earliest electronic digital computers: Colossus, the wartime codebreaking computer at Bletchley Park outside London, and the American ENIAC, developed to calculate ballistics. She examines postwar methods for recruiting programmers, and the 1960s redefinition of programming as the more masculine “software engineering.” She describes the social and business innovations of two early software entrepreneurs, Elsie Shutt and Stephanie Shirley; and she examines the career paths of women in academic computer science.

Abbate’s account of the bold and creative strategies of women who loved computing work, excelled at it, and forged successful careers will provide inspiration for those working to change gendered computing culture.

About the Author

Janet Abbate is Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and the author of Inventing the Internet (MIT Press, 1999).

Table of Contents

  • Recoding Gender
  • History of Computing
  • William Aspray, editor
  • Janet Abbate,
  • Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing
  • John Agar,
  • The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer
  • William Aspray and Paul E. Ceruzzi,
  • The Internet and American Business
  • William Aspray,
  • John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing
  • Charles J. Bashe, Lyle R. Johnson, John H. Palmer, and Emerson W. Pugh,
  • IBM’s Early Computers
  • Martin Campbell-Kelly,
  • From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry
  • Paul E. Ceruzzi,
  • A History of Modern Computing
  • I. Bernard Cohen,
  • Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer
  • I. Bernard Cohen and Gregory W. Welch, editors,
  • Makin’ Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer
  • John Hendry,
  • Innovating for Failure: Government Policy and the Early British Computer Industry
  • Michael Lindgren,
  • Glory and Failure: The Difference Engines of Johann Müller, Charles Babbage, and Georg and Edvard Scheutz
  • David E. Lundstrom,
  • A Few Good Men from Univac
  • René Moreau,
  • The Computer Comes of Age: The People, the Hardware, and the Software
  • Arthur L. Norberg,
  • Computers and Commerce: A Study of Technology and Management at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company, Engineering Research Associates, and Remington Rand, 1946–1957
  • Emerson W. Pugh,
  • Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology
  • Emerson W. Pugh,
  • Memories That Shaped an Industry
  • Emerson W. Pugh, Lyle R. Johnson, and John H. Palmer,
  • IBM’s 360 and Early 370 Systems
  • Kent C. Redmond and Thomas M. Smith,
  • From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer
  • Alex Roland with Philip Shiman,
  • Strategic Computing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intelligence, 1983–1993
  • Raúl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen, editors,
  • The First Computers: History and Architectures
  • Dorothy Stein,
  • Ada: A Life and a Legacy
  • John Vardalas,
  • The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence, 1945–1980
  • Maurice V. Wilkes,
  • Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer
  • Recoding Gender
  • Women’s Changing Participation in Computing
  • Janet Abbate
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2012
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • MIT Press books may be purchased at special quantity discounts for business or sales promotional use. For information, please email or write to Special Sales Department, The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142.
  • This book was set in Sabon by the MIT Press. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Abbate, Janet. Recoding gender : women’s changing participation in computing / Janet Abbate. p. cm. — (History of computing) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-262-01806-7 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Women in computer science. 2. Computer industry. I. Title. QA76.9.W65A33 2012 004.082—dc23 2012009891
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • For Tom and Wendy
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction: Rediscovering Women’s History in Computing 1
  • 1 Breaking Codes and Finding Trajectories: Women at the Dawn of the Digital Age 11
  • 2 Seeking the Perfect Programmer: Gender and Skill in Early Data Processing 39
  • 3 Software Crisis or Identity Crisis? Gender, Labor, and Programming Methods 73
  • 4 Female Entrepreneurs: Reimagining Software as a Business 113
  • 5 Gender in Academic Computing: Alternative Career Paths and Norms 145
  • Appendix: Oral History Interviews Conducted for This Project 177
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 225
  • Index 243


“Abbate's chapters are, as readers of her earlier work expect, trenchant, precise, and compelling, for she carefully connects technical considerations with social dimensions to provide thick description of behaviors in action.”—Carol Colatrella, nternational Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology
“This book is good reading for anyone who would like to explore the challenges of setting policies and gain a better understanding of the gender dynamics of a scientific and technical workforce.”—Maxine Cohen, Computing Reviews
“Through the stories of early women programmers such as the World War II “Wrens” who worked on top-secret code decryption, entrepreneurs such as Stephanie Shirley who created and ran her own computing firm, and current-day computer scientists such as Anita Borg, Abbate does a marvelous job of describing the excitement, fun, and satisfaction that women past and present have found, and will continue to find, in computing work.”—Caroline Clarke Hayes, Technology and Culture


“We've heard stories about women pioneers in computing, and some of us have our own to tell, but Janet Abbate captivates us as she recounts the roles of early women in defining the field. These inventive women did more than battle limiting rules and expectations of their times but created their own rules and succeeded at the new game. Abbate offers this history in the context of a thoughtful and balanced exploration of how a newly formed field was, and continues to be, impacted by evolving forces of gender bias. There are amazing stories and important lessons here for all of us.”
Irene Greif, IBM Fellow and Director, IBM Center for Social Business
“In stories that can only be described as both heroic and cautionary, Janet Abbate shows how women worked to establish a place for themselves in the field of computation, how they succeeded, and how they were frustrated in their efforts. She provides a well-written account of how a technology that had promised a universal, logical machine became deeply intertwined with issues of gender and identity. Abbate’s women help us to understand how we arrived at our modern perceptions of computing careers.”
David Alan Grier, George Washington University; 2013 President of the IEEE Computer Society
“This timely book takes a deep dive into the important question of why women are such a minority in computing technology. I hope the issues raised in this valuable book will inspire more women to join this growing field.”
Lixia Zhang, Computer Science Department, University of California, Los Angeles
“How did programming go from being ‘women's work’ to a ‘boys-only clubhouse’? Janet Abbate has woven extensive interviews with women on both sides of the Atlantic who were instrumental in the beginning of the digital computer industry into a fascinating story of how the culture of a profession develops. This book should be read by every woman in computing and by men who want to understand how the current culture of programming evolved from very different roots.”
Robin Jeffries, Systers’ Keeper, Systers Forum, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology


Winner, 2014 Computer History Museum Prize, awarded by the Society for the History of Technology