Britain’s sexist campaign to sell computers

By exploiting women, British companies gained all the benefits of powerful mainframes with little labor overhead

Published February 28, 2021 2:59PM (EST)

 (The back cover of "Copy Art: The First Complete Guide to the Copy Machine," a 1978 how-to guide on copy art.)
(The back cover of "Copy Art: The First Complete Guide to the Copy Machine," a 1978 how-to guide on copy art.)

This article originally appeared on the MIT Press Reader.

In 1959, a computer operator embarked on an extremely hectic year, tasked with programming and testing several of the new electronic computers on which the British government was becoming increasingly reliant. In addition, this operator had to train two new hires with no computing experience for a critical long-term project in the government's central computing installation. After being trained, the new hires quickly stepped into management roles, while their trainer, who was described as having "a good brain and a special flair" for computer work, was demoted to an assistantship below them.

This situation seems to make little sense until you learn that the trainer was a woman and the newly hired trainees were men. Yet this is not simply an example of unfair labor practices. It is part of a larger story about attempts to shape the newly developing digital economy.

In 1965, the chief accountant of Bibby and Baron Ltd., the largest paper bag manufacturer in England, wrote a series of articles on how office managers could wring the greatest efficiency from their workers at the lowest cost. "Equal pay for male and female workers is unlikely to be accepted by industrial concerns," he wrote in one, urging employers to hire women, and "because female clerks can be obtained at a cheaper price than males, and may be just as good if given the same opportunities and training, it should be your policy to employ them wherever possible."

This was at a moment when the clerical workforce of both the public and private sectors in Britain was heavily feminized and becoming even more so; because of this, most early computer operators were drawn from this pool of pseudoclerical labor. Nearly half of all young women leaving school went to work in offices by 1967, and of these, many went into computer operation and programming work. This was key to selling machines, because while wages and salaries in the aggregate had nearly tripled over the past 15 years, gross profits of companies had little more than doubled. Women continued to be seen as the best financial bet for all office work, including much computing work. But the catch was this devalued both computer work and the women doing it — eventually leading to industry-wide problems.

Computer companies quickly realized that highlighting workers' gender could be a potent selling point. Powers-Samas, which combined with British Tabulating Machines in 1959 to create ICT, consolidated the trope of the "Powers Girl" early on, a figure who demonstrated their electromechanical machines in advertisements and brochures. When the machines became electronic, the Powers Girls remained and served much the same function as before. Dressed in ladies' business attire, they showed how it might look to use a computer, humanizing opaque, intimidating, and potentially confusing machines. They also served a didactic function by showing the kind of worker that should operate Powers machines once a company purchased them. Finally, they showed purchasers that computers would not require a huge outlay for labor in addition to the hardware: "The conventional method is to hire women trained to operate any of the many machines available on the market," wrote one author in a Powers Magazine article discussing the economics of purchasing a new electronic Powers machine.

Throughout this period, British computing companies' advertisements were dominated by figures similar to the Powers Girls. Nearly all photographs used to sell and showcase computers in the early 1960s pictured a conservatively dressed, plain-looking female workforce standing or sitting while working at machines. As more machines became electronic, however, subtle changes in advertising style crept in. In earlier ads, Powers Girls smiled and engaged the viewer. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, often they only presented their backs to the viewer.

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As the 1960s wore on, images of women interacting with machines became less literal and, in the process, more freighted with additional meaning. Instead of focusing on a relatively plain-looking feminized workforce, whose presence was simultaneously meant to stand in for low-cost labor and to recede into the background as the viewer considered the computing system, women started to become a subject of the advertising themselves. In earlier advertisements, women were often faceless accessories to the machine, but this trope began to lose favor as the 60s progressed.

In many later images, the formula is reversed: The machines disappear while the woman remains, this time facing the viewer. At a certain point, advertising imagery began to focus more on the fact that managers were buying a system for managing and maximizing labor rather than just a machine. Although this had been implicit in earlier advertisements, in the later 60s it became explicit. Women pictured in the ads retained their importance as a shorthand representation of workers who conveyed all the benefits, and few of the downsides, of modern office labor, but now that message became even more critical to the sales pitch. Women's labor — by nature low-paid and temporary — was itself was being marketed as a key part of computerization.

The advertisements in ICL News and Office Methods and Machine Magazine portray workers as nearly superhuman when combined with their trusty computers, which barely appear in the ads at all. In the case of ICL's BARIC ad, a "girl operator" interacts with computer bureau services through her office terminal link. "The implications are obvious to every businessman," says the ad copy. Managers could gain all the benefits of a powerful mainframe with none of the hardware costs and little labor overhead. In another advertisement for a different type of technology, from the smaller company Business Mechanisation Limited, the technique is similar. Selling a minicomputer instead, the advertisement again focuses on the operator. With the help of her small office computer named SUSIE — short for Stock Updating and Sales Invoicing Electronically — the lone "girl operator" fulfilled functions like payroll, invoicing, stock control, and accounting which previously would have required a larger staff. Women's labor was no longer simply the best fit for the system, it was a necessary element in order to get the benefits of cost and control computers promised.

In addition, although previous advertisements used women to showcase machines, there had been little sexual subtext; women in earlier advertisements were shown less as "pretty faces" than as working hands. In the late 60s, computer marketing added sexuality to the pitch by differentiating one operator from the masses and foregrounding her, even to the exclusion of the machine. Using sex appeal strengthened the shift already underway in advertising from focusing on machines and workers to focusing primarily on workers. It was also nothing new in the sense that men's ideas about women's sexuality had been used to structure jobs in computing for decades. After all, compulsory heterosexuality's effect on women's working lives was the main reason women had ended up in low-level machine work in the first place.

The primary purpose of these ads, however, was to assure managers that they could get away with using generic office staff when buying a computer. The ads asserted that operators did not require special training or expertise. The SUSIE computer "is operated by a typist — not highly paid programmers and controllers," says the ad copy. Even though it states that the computer "is programmed in plain language from tape or by the typist," the operator remains just a typist, not a "highly paid programmer." Yet the fact that the SUSIE computer came with a 130-page programming manual gives some indication of how inaccurate it was to refer to the operator as a typist. Several of the other computers produced by the group of companies known as Business Mechanisation Limited, later Business Computers Limited, had women's names that alluded to the computer's functions. In addition to SUSIE, there was BETSIE (a betting and bookmaking computer) and SADIE (which stood for Sterling and Decimal Invoicing Electronically). Women's labor had become so closely allied with computers that some machines actually took on their identities.

Another selling technique evolved simultaneously over the course of the 1960s. Some companies, including ICT (later International Computers Limited, or ICL), employed all-women computer demonstration teams who worked on-site at the company and at trade shows operating the demonstration machines for potential customers. After purchase, these same workers would often write programs for the customers to help set up the new computers. These teams ensured that business consumers saw computers as easy to staff and not overly complex to run.

The young women presented a vision of effortless efficiency and conveyed none of the gravitas or commitment to training and need to offer careers that young men as staff might have conveyed. For similar reasons women operators and programmers at IBM's world headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York City were told to work on the computers in the window, in view of the sidewalk, to make the machines look "easy to use."

By the late 1980s, working with computers had acquired a distinctly masculine image within British society. So much so that, as influential labor researcher Cynthia Cockburn noted, "for a woman to aspire to technical competence is, in a very real sense, to transgress the rules of gender." Today, despite decades of equal pay legislation and significant discussion of educational strategies designed to change this situation on both sides of the Atlantic, perceptions of women as less technically competent persist within Anglo-American culture, business, and higher education. Yet this image of incompetence is a recent historical construction. It is not rooted in some sort of natural evolution of the field, nor is it a reflection of women's demonstrated skills, aptitudes, and interests.

In 1992 Teresa Rees, a University of Wales researcher, produced a report for the Commission of the European Communities on the domestic "brain drain" in high technology. The subject was women's underrepresentation in jobs created by new digital information technologies, especially in positions of power and responsibility. In the report, she attempted to explain and offer solutions for the problem of skill shortages in information technology by investigating the underutilization of women. She reported that culturally constructed roles for women and men in Britain, and European society more broadly, fed a cycle of perpetual skill shortage and led to a lack of acknowledgment of women's technical skills and achievements.

In 1958, British Tabulating Machines — the same company that built the codebreaking Bombes for the government during World War II — sent a computer operator named Andrina Wood around the world to "demonstrate" BTM's new general-purpose electronic computers. "During her stay in Australia she is demonstrating the [electronic] Hec machine in operation at two exhibitions and is supervising training of local staff," reported BTM's employee magazine. This assignment made Wood a vector of international technological transfer and an early electronic computer expert, yet she would not have been described as such.

Perhaps most important to modern eyes is the note added almost as an afterthought to the article on Wood: "The programmes for the work being demonstrated were written entirely by Miss Wood before her departure." Women computer operators, though not given the title, were usually programmers as well. Kept from assuming the title of programmer or the mantle of expert by a variety of cultural and professional constraints, these operators nonetheless did more than simply operate. That they remain unknown is an effect of how the field was intentionally professionalized out of their reach, rather than an indictment of their expertise or potential.

In recent years, historical studies of women in computing have begun to proliferate. As have the evident harms of the massive computerized infrastructures that shape business, social life, and even politics in the 21stcentury. The cleaving out of certain workers and certain narratives has allowed us to see the history of computing as a story of unbroken successes for a long time, leaving us ill-prepared to confront the inherent flaws in our computing systems and the socio-economic systems that they take for granted.

The story of British women in computing is one of labor devaluation and sexism that ultimately led to the downfall of a strong national computing industry, and was detrimental to a nation's overall fortunes. Unfortunately, this is not a peculiarly British story: All through the history of computing we see elisions that cleave out failure and discrimination in order to assure us that we are living in the best of all possible high-tech worlds where meritocracy guides technological progress. As we increasingly crash into the realization that we are not, and have never been, living in the best of all possible high-tech worlds, these stories of failure in computing, and of marginalized groups' frustrated attempts to "make it" and make positive change in high tech, are ever more important to understanding technology's role in our societies' futures.

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Mar Hicks is a historian of technology, gender and modern Europe, notable for work on the history of women in computing. Hicks is a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the author of "Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing." Hicks has a new co-edited volume out in March called "Your Computer is on Fire."

By Mar Hicks


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