Marie Hicks, Historian of Technology

Where Did all the Women in Tech Go? | BBC Ideas

Mar Hicks Headshot
The title slide has what looks to be an old, black and white photograph of a woman in a suit next to a large old-fashioned computer contraption with the headline, “Where Did all the Women in Tech Go?”

You won’t believe what happened to women working in computing in the mid-20th century.

Did you know there used to be more women than men in computing? Technology historian Marie Hick shares the story of how that all changed and the lessons we can learn from it. 

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You’ll learn

  • What happened to the UK’s computing industry when women were pushed out in the 1950s and 60s (hint: it failed) 

  • How discrimination continues to wreck high-tech economies and labor markets 

  • How looking to the past can help us better move forward into the future 

Who is this for?

Network Professionals Business Leaders


Mar Hicks Headshot
Marie Hicks
Historian of Technology 


0:03 There used to be more women in computing than men.

0:06 Where did they all go?

0:13 In the 1950s and the 1960s,

0:15 computer programming was decidedly women's work

0:19 but as the 1960s stretched on, women started to be replaced by men,

0:24 and not just by men, but management-level technocrats.

0:29 The gender of the field flipped because women were pushed out,

0:33 not because they didn’t have the tech skills.

0:35 And many women found themselves in the position,

0:37 of training their male replacements.

0:40 Not all of the women who were pushed out of the workforce

0:43 stopped working in computing however.

0:46 Dame Stephanie Shirley who back then went by the moniker 'Steve'

0:50 actually started her own freelance software company

0:54 and Shirley had an explicitly feminist business model.

0:59 At this point in time, most programming was done

1:01 with pencil and paper before being run through a machine

1:05 so Stephanie Shirley's workers could work from home

1:08 and they could have flexible hours

1:09 that allowed them to take care of children and families.

1:13 One of these workers, Ann Moffatt,

1:15 programmed the black box flight recorder for the Concorde.

1:20 And you can see her programming at her kitchen table

1:23 while her young daughter looks on.

1:26 But many other women just left the field entirely.

1:30 This produced an enormous skills shortage and a huge labour shortage.

1:34 Meaning that the people available to do the important work

1:37 of computerisation were suddenly too few in number.

1:42 As a result of this, the British government decided that they needed

1:46 to change the design of the computers that they were using.

1:50 Since there weren’t enough people to run them,

1:52 they would concentrate and centralise computers.

1:56 In conjunction with the Ministry of Technology,

1:59 the British government forced a merger of all of the remaining

2:03 successful computing companies

2:05 and this created one big company that was supposed to provide

2:09 the government and the entire nation

2:11 with the kind of huge centralised mainframes

2:14 that could be run by the small number of technocrats

2:18 who were now remaining.

2:20 The problem with this however

2:22 is that by the time the machine was delivered

2:24 the mainframe was on the way out,

2:27 and even though ICL's line of computers

2:29 was highly technically advanced,

2:32 it wasn't something anyone wanted to buy anymore.

2:35 This effectively destroyed the British computing industry

2:39 and today we see similar things going on.

2:42 Discrimination continues to wreck high-tech economies

2:45 and high-tech labour markets

2:47 and the results reverberate out into the rest of society.

2:51 Right now we see in the United States

2:53 Silicon Valley having a day of reckoning in terms of how they hire,

2:57 promote and decide to design their technologies.

3:01 All of the talent that is lost hurts the industry and hurts the economy

3:06 but what's more important is that

3:08 these people lack a voice in designing critical infrastructure

3:13 that we're all going to have to live with.

3:15 It can undermine the principles of democracy.

3:18 By looking at examples from the past,

3:21 we can find out not just how to build better technologies

3:24 but how to construct fairer societies.

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