The introduction of typewriters, telephones and calculating machines in the late 19th Century gave women some traction in the employment market and a rather more agreeable working environment than factory or shop work. These were new roles and low status but, crucially, they were regarded as female jobs. Women who broke into ‘masculine’ roles during the First World War were mostly sent back home afterwards, with only a quarter of women remaining in their wartime jobs in 1920 (Ferguson, NA, 1975. Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles, 1918–1939. Albion, 7(1), 55–68) Women in technical, office-based roles were relatively safe from male incursion but their careers tended to be short-lived and men occupied the senior roles with better pay. Clerks and typists represented 1.7% of women in the workforce in England & Wales in 1901 but this had increased to 9.9% by 1921 and to 20.3% by 1951 (Gales, KE & Marks, PH, 1974. Twentieth Century Trends in The Work of Women in England and Wales. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), 137(1), 60).


Women may initially have been pleased with office employment, thinking that being in the office would reap better prospects than being on the factory floor. Sadly, it would turn out to be another dead end on the road to equality. In the late 19th Century type writing machine design was developing along two different lines. There were the Linotype machines, used for typesetting in the printing industry, and the Remington Standard QWERTY keyboard typewriter for general office use, with which we are all familiar. The Linotype machines were larger, lighter touch, had 90 keys (instead of 44 on the Remington) and required a more active and intuitive approach. The design of the Remington was driven by production cost rather than user convenience. The keys were small, it was fiddly to use and took a bit of training to get used to the keyboard layout. The Linotype machine was much preferred by men and remained in use until the 1980s, while use of the Remington quickly became women’s work (Webster J, 1996. Shaping women’s work: gender, employment, and information technology. Longman).

The typewriters were noisy and so women were conveniently ghettoised into typing pools, to contain the irritating ‘clack clack’ of the keys and the ‘ding’ of the carriage return, further separating them from the business environment and its career prospects. Office technology evolved to minimise costs to the business, so it made sense to stick to the QWERTY keyboards and their low-cost women operators. Even when word processing came in, and a review of keyboard design to make it user-friendly and gender neutral could easily have been done, it was simply used to further demote women: a skilled typist could take pride in producing a beautifully presented document, but the computer now did this for her automatically.


Similarly, when tabulators were introduced, it quickly became ‘women’s work’ in the sense that it was regarded as mechanical, mundane and low skilled. The marriage bar meant that these were effectively temporary jobs, with low pay and no career prospects. When the marriage bar was removed in 1946 the Civil Service quickly introduced Machine Grades, outside the normal pay, pension and career structure, creating an underclass of women workers. Even when equal pay in the Civil Service was brought into law in 1955, it was on the basis of equivalence of role and grade. There were no male machine operators, so there were no equivalents and therefore no pay improvement. “54% of women civil servants would be left unaided by equal pay, because the women were employed in grades confined to women,” (Programmed Inequality, Mar Hicks, 2017, MIT, p93).


Dora was not the only senior female member of staff at BTM. Gordon Clarke mentioned that “A woman, Christine Willies of BTM, wrote the first scientific computer program in Ireland around 1958.” By the end of the 1950s the importance of computing was starting to be appreciated and the British government began to encourage men to join the ‘computing department’. Mar Hicks describes how one young female programmer, who was instrumental in the development of UK government systems for taxation, utilities and the welfare state, was asked in 1959 to train up two male assistants, who were then promoted over her. In the 1960s, when women were still largely expected to retire on marriage, advances in computing were seriously hampered by the loss of these skilled human resources and by the lack of men willing to train as programmers.

One woman, Stephanie Shirley, with a degree in mathematics and experience at the prestigious Dollis Hill research centre, home of the Colossus, kept being denied promotion and eventually resigned when she got married. She’d learned that the men who were evaluating her case had resigned from the promotions board rather than recommend her. They disapproved, on principle, of women holding managerial posts. She set up her own business for freelance programmers to work from home, in the days when it was cheaper and easier to program on paper and punch cards rather than on the computer. It suited women with young children perfectly and many advances in computing were made by these freelancing pioneers, including programming the ‘black box’ flight recorder for Concorde. In spite of these technical successes, the ‘cottage industry’ approach still kept them at the bottom of the career ladder, and even there they were regarded as potentially dangerous.

British government, industry and innovation were increasingly dependent on these women and the government were concerned they might decide to wield their power by striking or demanding higher pay. In the late 1960s the government realised that there was a huge need for skilled computer programmers and that there was a shortage of men qualified – or willing – to fill the roles. Promoting the women would only increase their power, so that was unacceptable and ruled out solutions that were based on software developments. Their solution was to reduce the number of jobs in computing by promoting the development of ever larger, more powerful mainframe computers that could be run centrally. This strategy backfired spectacularly (see BTM, Post-war section ).

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