Recoding Gender

From History of Computing

Recoding Gender

Women's Changing Participation in Computing

By Janet Abbate

The untold history of women and computing: how pioneering women succeeded in a field shaped by gender biases.





The untold history of women and computing: how pioneering women succeeded in a field shaped by gender biases.

Today, women earn a relatively low percentage of computer science degrees and hold proportionately few technical computing jobs. Meanwhile, the stereotype of the male “computer geek” seems to be everywhere in popular culture. Few people know that women were a significant presence in the early decades of computing in both the United States and Britain. Indeed, programming in postwar years was considered woman's work (perhaps in contrast to the more manly task of building the computers themselves). In Recoding Gender, Janet Abbate explores the untold history of women in computer science and programming from the Second World War to the late twentieth century. Demonstrating how gender has shaped the culture of computing, she offers a valuable historical perspective on today's concerns over women's underrepresentation in the field.

Abbate describes the experiences of women who worked with the earliest electronic digital computers: Colossus, the wartime codebreaking computer at Bletchley Park outside London, and the American ENIAC, developed to calculate ballistics. She examines postwar methods for recruiting programmers, and the 1960s redefinition of programming as the more masculine “software engineering.” She describes the social and business innovations of two early software entrepreneurs, Elsie Shutt and Stephanie Shirley; and she examines the career paths of women in academic computer science.

Abbate's account of the bold and creative strategies of women who loved computing work, excelled at it, and forged successful careers will provide inspiration for those working to change gendered computing culture.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262018067 264 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 16 figures


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262534536 264 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 16 figures


  • Abbate's chapters are, as readers of her earlier work expect, trenchant, precise, and compelling, for she carefully connects technical considerations with social dimensions to provide thick description of behaviors in action.

    Carol Colatrella

    nternational Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology

  • This book is good reading for anyone who would like to explore the challenges of setting policies and gain a better understanding of the gender dynamics of a scientific and technical workforce.

    Maxine Cohen

    Computing Reviews

  • Through the stories of early women programmers such as the World War II 'Wrens' who worked on top-secret code decryption, entrepreneurs such as Stephanie Shirley who created and ran her own computing firm, and current-day computer scientists such as Anita Borg, Abbate does a marvelous job of describing the excitement, fun, and satisfaction that women past and present have found, and will continue to find, in computing work.

    Caroline Clarke Hayes

    Technology and Culture


  • We've heard stories about women pioneers in computing, and some of us have our own to tell, but Janet Abbate captivates us as she recounts the roles of early women in defining the field. These inventive women did more than battle limiting rules and expectations of their times but created their own rules and succeeded at the new game. Abbate offers this history in the context of a thoughtful and balanced exploration of how a newly formed field was, and continues to be, impacted by evolving forces of gender bias. There are amazing stories and important lessons here for all of us.

    Irene Greif

    IBM Fellow and Director, IBM Center for Social Business

  • In stories that can only be described as both heroic and cautionary, Janet Abbate shows how women worked to establish a place for themselves in the field of computation, how they succeeded, and how they were frustrated in their efforts. She provides a well-written account of how a technology that had promised a universal, logical machine became deeply intertwined with issues of gender and identity. Abbate's women help us to understand how we arrived at our modern perceptions of computing careers.

    David Alan Grier

    George Washington University; 2013 President of the IEEE Computer Society

  • This timely book takes a deep dive into the important question of why women are such a minority in computing technology. I hope the issues raised in this valuable book will inspire more women to join this growing field.

    Lixia Zhang

    Computer Science Department, University of California, Los Angeles

  • How did programming go from being 'women's work' to a 'boys-only clubhouse'? Janet Abbate has woven extensive interviews with women on both sides of the Atlantic who were instrumental in the beginning of the digital computer industry into a fascinating story of how the culture of a profession develops. This book should be read by every woman in computing and by men who want to understand how the current culture of programming evolved from very different roots.

    Robin Jeffries

    Systers' Keeper, Systers Forum, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology


  • Winner, 2014 Computer History Museum Prize, awarded by the Society for the History of Technology