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Charles Babbage Institute

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Sloan Foundation: Women in the

Computing Industry (1965-85)

Scholarly interest in women and computing has blossomed in the past decade, with research, conference papers, journal articles, and books exploring the experiences and perspectives of women—most often the articulate leaders in the computing professions.  In her pioneering study Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (MIT 2012), Janet Abbate understandably focuses on “the upper echelon of the computing field . . . to make visible some notable contributions by women.”  At CBI our oral histories often focus on the most prominent figures in computing, a sampling bias that our study of NSF’s FastLane computer system was designed in part to correct with large and deep oral histories (see article). 

From left: Kathy Detrano and Carol Miller with male staff from Bell Laboratories (Whippany NJ) demonstration of
Parallel Element Processing Ensemble (PEPE) for Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency (c.1969-70)

Another research strategy is simply to go to the source.  Staff members at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation had read the CBI volume Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing (Wiley–IEEE Computer Society Press, 2010).  In 2014 Sloan funded CBI to do a research project, “Tripling Women’s Participation in Computing (1965-85),” comprising archival investigations and a set of oral histories with women who worked in the computer industry beginning in the 1960s (see Spring 2014 CBI Newsletter).  During the 1965–85 period, women flooded into undergraduate computer-science programs and the white-collar computing workforce, so that by the mid-1980s women received 37 percent of all undergraduate CS degrees and represented 38 percent of the white collar IT workforce; since then, however, these proportions have fallen significantly.  We hope to gain insight on the upside of women’s participation in computing as well as the subsequent downturn.  Will Vogel, the graduate student research assistant who worked on the project last year, has submitted an article summarizing his findings, “‘The Spitting Image of a Woman Programmer’: Changing Perceptions of Women in the American Computing Industry, 1958-1985,” to IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.  This note describes the three-dozen oral histories that I did this fall and winter with women from Lockheed Martin, Bell Laboratories, IBM, Control Data, and American Airlines.

CBI’s Sloan-funded project has its origins several years back, when I had the opportunity to interview Joyce Malleck (a colleague of the father of a colleague of mine).  Joyce, in describing her own technical career at Bell Laboratories, made it clear that she was part of a cohort of Bell Labs women.  Indeed, this network originally formed in Chicago and remains active to this day.  Yes, Joyce told me, I’d be happy to connect you with this group of women: they’d be happy to do interviews.  Another network of women came into view when I talked with our local colleagues at Lockheed Martin (Eagan Minnesota plant).  Yes, of course, there were hundreds of women who worked in demanding and challenging technical positions.  John Westergren kindly compiled a spreadsheet with two dozen names and contact addresses.  Sloan happily enough provided the needed funding for such a study.  As mentioned above, we began work with Will Vogel’s research and writing on women in the computing industry, based on a unique dataset he compiled from CBI’s SHARE records, a comprehensive analysis of the trade journal Datamation (1950s–1970s), and targeted archival research in company records.  I started a round of interviewing in the fall.

AT&T Women Reunion August 2015.
From left to right: Mary Holt, Fran Chessler, Janet Nordin, Beth Eddy, Carol Miller, Marda Higdon Jones,
Dana Becker Dunn, Karen Coates, unidentified, Yvonne Shepherd, and Jane Herron.

To date, we have completed 37 interviews totaling over 50 hours of recordings.  These interviews yield deep insights into a group of women—who worked as programmers, engineers, project managers, software testers, line managers, even as high-ranking executives—who are not at all well documented, let alone well understood.  Each interview picks up the specifics of that individual’s career, asking questions along the way about family background, education, recruitment into early positions, relations with male and female co-workers (colleagues, supervisors, and supervisees), company culture, career paths, and promotions.  This unique CBI resource, once the recordings are transcribed, processed, and posted, will be publicly and permanently available to anyone who may be interested.  I followed the stories of these women onto the decks of U.S. Navy ships being tested for acceptance . . . into the simulated fuselages of downed aircraft . . . through the hallways of corporate America . . . even into the charged environment of the 1970s as companies struggled to deal with sexism and racism in the workplace and in society.  The voices of the individual women, and their many distinctive experiences and career paths, shine through vibrantly.  Research will continue this summer with additional interviews.

Thomas J. Misa


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