Working in a Male Dominated Industry - A Flash Back Story
By Sue Methuen
If you were asked to come up with three industries that are mostly dominated by men, what would come to mind? Construction? Car mechanic? Mining? What about computer programming? While the latter is less male dominated now, that sure wasn’t the case when I entered the field in 1980.
I was 21 years old and part of a group of new recruits in the Systems Development department at London Life Insurance Company. Our little band of programmer trainees included eight women and one man. At the time there were only two women programmers among a department of approximately 50 men. While the lone male in our trainee group was welcomed with congratulatory back slaps, myself and the other women didn’t receive much of a warm reception. It was obvious that there were quite a few men who didn’t want women in "their" area.
Back then, no one in the department had a computer on their desk. Personal computers didn’t exist yet. We programmed by hand on coding sheets, then sent them away to be punched onto cards and fed into a massive mainframe computer in the bunker (basement). A day later we would receive reams of paper with the results of our programming efforts. Problems (bugs) had to be decoded by hand, which often meant reading "hex dumps" to find the issue and debug it. Huge manuals on a central table were our main resource for uncovering issues. That, and talking it out with other programmers.
It was the central table of manuals that was one of the biggest issues for women. We had to lean over the table to search through indexes in order to find the information we needed. Men walking by would give a little “pinch” - an action that resulted in us quickly standing up and glaring at all the guys around us, trying to figure out who did it. Other antics were men rudely “eye balling” us whenever we walked by their cubicle. Rude and unnerving to say the least!
We women were a determined lot and nothing was going to stop us in our new career. We had earned a spot in this department and demanded respect. Our instructor, Tom Grayson, was a sympathetic ear and advocated on our behalf with management. We appreciated his support, yet there were situations that we managed to effectively change on our own.
The work cubicles had soft walls that were perfect for pinning up notes and reminders. Unfortunately, there were also quite a few nude pictures of women on those walls. We complained that it was unprofessional but nothing was done. Taking matters into their own hands, a few women posted photos of nude men on their walls. Well that got a reaction! The men were outraged. Within 24 hours all nude photos were down.
Eventually our department received a computer terminal - one to share among all of us. We each had time slots and took turns entering our programming code. At the time, we thought it was huge progress as it eliminated the need for punched cards. Fast forward a few more years and everyone had a computer on their desk. It was the end of an era.
What also came to an end was the male domination of our department and a welcome change in attitude along with it. You could see the difference when the next group of programmer trainees joining the ranks six months later, many being women. Within a few years, both women and men were equal and respected team members.
I'm proud to be included in a small group of women who were there at the beginning of computer programming in the 80’s. We were trail blazers in the field of technology and for gender equality.
Submitted and written by Sue Methuen