The Computer was once a Woman

Decoding gender inequality in the IT industry.

Written by Nishant Shah | Published: March 4, 2012 1:08 am

Decoding gender inequality in the IT industry.

The first decade of the new millennium has been the decade of the Geek. Many different events corroborated the fact that the new hero of the information society is the code-warrior,who relentlessly changes the ways in which we understand our life,labour and language. The Time magazine called Bloggers,people of the year. Facebook and Twitter revolutions forced governments to change their ways. The IT guru became the new profession that Indian middle classes gravitated towards,outranking the erstwhile socially privileged aspirations of becoming doctors. Information service giants like Infosys and Wipro have captured a global imagination. In cities like Bangalore and Gurgaon,“techies” have now become a part of the social landscape. Television’s new-found glitterati are science nerds,technology geeks and dysfunctional forensic experts who use new technologies to think about life,and also about death. All in all,it has been an exciting time for those employed in the field of information technology,where anybody with a computing device and internet access can become a social hacker,a civic protestor,an advocate of human rights,where with one click (and a little bit of code),people can imagine themselves as changing the world. Simultaneously,there is a growing anxiety that anybody on the Infobahn is also a potential pornographer (including ministers sitting in assemblies),pirates (like all of us who mourned the death of the international book pirate archive – Library.nu) and terrorists (like the rioters in London who orchestrated their acts of vandalism using their Blackberries).

Of course,this glorified imagination is far removed from everyday reality of a techie who crunches code,debugs applications,and goes through the motions of alienated labour,often working in asynchronous time-zones and headspaces. However,the possibilities and potentials that technologies have to offer are exciting and invigorating. In all this,I want to throw in,what is often in India called,the “women’s question”. Try and make a list of five men who have defined the realm of the digital and the internet for you. From Bill Gates to Tim Berner’s-Lee to Jimmy Wales to Steve Jobs — the names will be easy to come by. In its short history,the internet has already produced its saints,its canons,its heroes who have shaped and defined it in extraordinary ways through their vision,their skill and their design. Now try and make a list of five women who have significantly contributed to and shaped the digital and the internet as we know it. Did you just blank out? In many ways,this gaping absence in our imagination and histories of the digital technologies is symptomatic of the invisible presence of women in the IT sector. There might be some suo moto arguments which we forward to account for this absence — the internet is a technological field and women are traditionally not very participative in technological fields. The internet protocols require knowledge of physics,maths and logic,which are perceived as largely masculine roles. The internet technology markets are vicious and cut-throat and the world doesn’t look very kindly at women in such positions. This list of platitudes can be exhaustive. And it will overlook the fact that in the history of computing,the first computers were actually women.

In post-war America,when computing technologies were being evolved,and the mainframe computers were larger than your average-sized living room,the architect of the mainframe was the god-like figure,managing circuits,networks and human beings who worked within the mainframe to get real-time estimates of ballistic missile routes. At the same time,women,who were then coming out with advanced degrees in mathematics and physics,were employed as “computers” — people whose job was to perform computation within the mainframe. I start with this story to make us realise that the general presumption that women are always outside of technology labour,or that they are more adapt to ancillary support positions,is essentially wrong. When the mainframe was the vogue,women were an integral part of computing and were the visible infrastructure of the movement.

It is only when the computers started shrinking and going personal that we saw a seismic shift in the gendered labour of computing. With the personal computer,the mainframe architect became redundant,his role taken up by hardware design and protocols. As the hardware became pre-assembled,the architect got reduced to a systems administrator,looking after maintenance and sustenance of the system and its networks. However,the task that the women computers were performing became more complex and demanding greater human intervention — this was the production of software. Software was not a pre-assembled package but in fact a condition where new computing and production could take place. It required the skills that the women computers had and it would have been logical to think that these women then acquired positions of power and success in the newly personalised IT field. And yet,what we have,in the course of a decade or so,is the complete obliteration of not only the women computers’ labour in computing history,but also a systemic absence of women in IT. Or in other words,the women who shaped that particular form of computing became invisible,and their jobs which became more central to the future of computing became masculine jobs — jobs that required male geeks and men-as-techies. Women,within IT,either got pushed into less powerful tasks of resource management or had to become “one of the boys” in order to find their legitimate space in the field.

New technologies,with their democratic potentials and the desire to question the status quo,often produce an illusion of how older forms of inequity are flattened out in this new digital utopia. They pretend that they are democratic,collaborative,equal-opportunity and agnostic to earlier forms of discriminations. Seduced by these promises,we often forget to look below the surface of their interfaces. We forget the kinds of gendered labour practices they have produced. We even find ourselves persuaded by silly arguments like “women are better at maintaining relationships and hence there are more women on Facebook.” Even more dangerous than these kinds of social fallacies,are people who believe the claim technologies make by suggesting that there are almost as many female users online as men (not true!). Similar claims that argue that the IT industry offers equal employment to women without looking at what are the jobs that are being offered (or if there is an equity of wages involved therein) can also sustain this illusion. But the memory of the women computers needs to be kept alive,to remind us,that there is nothing natural about the separation of women from technologies,and that there are older histories of gender discrimination which might get flattened on the social media,but still exist in the very ways in which technologies are produced and consumed.

(Nishant Shah is director,research,Centre for Internet and Society)

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