Computer coding: definitely women’s work

The movie choice on BA0067 from Heathrow to Phildelphia on Saturday was very apt for educators who were headed to the conference of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in Richmond Virginia, which takes place from 22 June to 24 June. The theme of the conference is ‘From STEM to STEAM – Girls’ Schools Leading the Way’, and the airborne film selection included the Oscar and BAFTA award-winning ‘The Imitation Game’.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, ‘The Imitation Game’ tells the story of the cryptoanalysts at Bletchley Park in WWII, who built the machine that was to break the German Enigma code and end the war an estimated 2 years earlier than might otherwise have been the case. The story was of the triumph of mathematics over physical force, and of the groundbreaking innovation that lead to the invention of computers; the story also exposed threads of direct relevance to those of us travelling to a conference whose main focus is to demonstrate the work that still needs to be done – the ground that still needs to be broken – in order to ensure that the creativity of all humankind can be brought to bear on the development of technology that has the potential still to have enormously positive effects on our lives.

It was fascinating to watch unfold on screen the (now breathtakingly embarrassing) way in which Joan Clarke’s achievements were underplayed simply because she was a woman. Clarke, Alan Turing’s one-time fiancée, played slightly implausibly in the film by Keira Knightley, was in real-life an alumna of a girls’ school and of Newnham College Cambridge, where despite gaining a double-first, she was denied a full degree, as Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948. It behoves us to remember that this is very recent history, as it helps us to understand why so much prejudice remains embedded in our social perceptions of gender; nonetheless, we can quite rightly also be horrified at how differently her mental agility was appreciated at the time.

It was equally fascinating to see on screen, however, the suspicions and prejudices against technology and the battle of the physical versus the cerebral – again, a tension with which many will be familiar. Bring both prejudices together – that of gender and of intellect – and it is not hard to see why, in the years after the war, computer work was seen (degradingly) as low-skilled ‘women’s work’, and more computer programmers were female than male. It had a positive benefit – this is why women had such an impact on important advances in technology, and the photo circulated widely in recent months of the Apollo engineer Margaret Hamilton, standing next to the code which took Apollo 11 to the moon, is a powerful symbol of this. (The photo and an interview with Margaret Hamilton can be seen here.)

The benefit was unintended, and was not to last. If you haven’t already read it, read this article which refers to the work of Professor Nathan Ensmenger in exposing the shifts in gender perception in computer programming. To summarise his findings: as computer programming began to rise in status, women – who had been leading the way in the field – were effectively demoted, and it became a male-dominated career. It is ironic that women – who once dominated in the industry – now only make up around 10% of it. There is ground to be made up.

Great movies – especially watched in-flight – prompt us to take the time to reflect. Flying is of itself a feat of technical and electronic engineering. So too are all the airport and airline systems which enable the transportation of luggage and people halfway around the world and bring them together in one piece at the end. And so too are the communications technologies which allow us to speak with family at a distance, make connections and live and work across different time zones. There is so much more that technology can do for us, however, and it is just waiting to be created. Our children will invent, imagine and do all of this; as educators we just need to release them all – and definitely girls as well as boys – and to show them that they are no longer limited by the bounds of history.

Women’s work, indeed.


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