When the anti-diversity memo by (now former) Google employee James Damore went viral, all I could think of was medieval brewing. In the memo, Damore argued that women as a gender just aren’t as mentally fit as men to be good programmers. Appropriately, the rebuttals to Damore have focused on two issues. First, he’s wrong on the science. Second, he ignores the specific history of coding and gender. Both critiques are accurate and important. As a historian, though, I’d like us to broaden the discussion away from technology and the last 50 years, and recognize that the exclusion of women from coding fits perfectly into centuries of labor history. It turns out that whenever an occupation becomes profitable, women get cut out….
As the Google story broke, I emailed Bennett to ask for her reactions. She wasn’t at all surprised: “This coding story is an old story—in employment and so much else, power moves toward power. The shocking thing about coding-and-gender is that it is such a dramatic version of that old story, and that it happened on our watch.” Bennett recalls that, during the late 1980s and ’90s, feminist scholars were talking about the rising gender imbalance in computer programing even as it took place. As she wrote to me, “We know this pattern; we can now discern it early; and we’ve not yet figured out how to stop it.”