Where are the women in the Swedish IT history?

A friend who shares my interest in women and information technology asked me if I know anything about women in the Swedish history of computing. She was thinking of the gender conscious rewriting of British and American computer history, showing the important role that women programmers played in the infancy of computerization. The film Hidden figures is maybe the most famous of them, but there are also books like Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks or Recoding Gender by Janet Abbate. How about Sweden – do we have unknown sides of our history, too?

I knew of no such study, but my curiosity was awakened and so I started surfing the net. The history is quite well hidden, but, finally I found a pioneer, comparable to the ENIAC girls who programmed the huge wartime computer in the USA. The Swedish person was Elsa-Karin Boestad-Nilsson, who programmed computers for the Swedish armed forces from 1948 on.

Elsa-Karin Boestad-Nilsson had studied mathematics and physics, and after graduation she got a job at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. Her story has clear similarities to that of the ENIAC girls. Just like in the US, it was mathematically educated women who did calculations by hand, while male colleagues travelled to the US to learn more about this new thing, computers. Boestad-Nilsson invented a mathematical method that shortened certain calculations, but nobody encouraged her to publish her findings. Her story tells about being looked down upon, as she recounts in an interview in the Swedish magazine “Forskning och framsteg”:

After one years’ employment she was allowed to attend a meeting, and heard the question: “What is such a small missus doing here?” The department manager replied, “Miss Boestad is daughter of professor Boestad in the Royal University of Technology.”

It was the calculation assistants that were to program the computers – as Boestad-Nilsson says, the male researchers thought it a dreary work, and rather used a female assistant who programmed for them. Boestad-Nilsson, however, did her programming herself. She was fascinated by computers, when they started to materialize, by the creativity and problem-solving challenges that the early machines required. The female programmers did very much unseen work to get the early programmes running on shaky computers. Boestad-Nilsson became the head of the calculation division and that division came to consist mainly of women – the first Swedish computer programmers.

Boestad-Nilsson’s story has clear parallels with the story of the ENIAC girls who programmed the first computers in the USA. No wonder – the position of women as pen-pushers was similar in both countries. In both countries programming changed genders and became a male activity, when it became clear that programming was about dominating the computer, rather than being attached to a computer as an auxiliary.

A student thesis by Patrik Persson brings history forward to 1978-1985. Persson has analysed the illustrations in the Swedish computer magazine Mikrodatorn. He shows how again women were seen as auxiliaries. Now it was the men who programmed, and women who used the office machines – a parallel to when men made the machines and women programmed. Again, women did the work that was regarded too simple and dreary, requiring no problem solving. Especially when usability was discussed, women came into the picture transmitting a message: this machine is so simple that even a woman can use it. While men took a dominating pose beside the machine in a photo, women stood by the computer humbly using its services. Only men could get recognition in the computer world, women were anonymous.

Men as the creators, women as the users. How about today? Things have changed. Nobody can deny that women can and do program. And things have not changed. The idea, very obvious in Persson’s material, that women are more “human” and less technical seems to be well and alive in our subconscious. Reading Persson’s thesis I recall a video from my own university, targeted to presumptive computer engineering students. Three alumnae are presented, two men and one woman. What do they do? The woman works with sales, the men are a system developer and a programmer.

This is the history we carry with us – and the history we transform.

Minna Salminen-Karlsson

Sources in Swedish

Internetmuseum, Internetstiftelsen: https://www.internetmuseum.se/tidslinjen/elsa-karin-boestad-nilsson-programmerar-pa-forsvarets-forskningsanstalt/

Forskning och Framsteg, 2015, nr 4: https://fof.se/tidning/2015/4/artikel/kvinnorna-bakom-datorernas-genombrott

Patrik Persson, “Möss, män och mikrodatorer” (2012): http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=2462803&fileOId=2536931

Recruitment video: https://youtu.be/vo35tU_14lI

Research funding for whom?

In Finland, the last few weeks have a special meaning to researchers working in the social sciences and humanities as the most important funding agency, the Academy of Finland, announced its funding decisions. The Academy granted funding for 59 research projects and 21 posts as Academy Research Fellow. In the former, the success rate was 13%, the share of women of the funded researchers was 51% and of the applicants 48%. In the latter, the success rate was 11% and the share of women of both the applicants and the funded researchers was 62%.

The percentages tell the familiar story. In terms of gender, the story is positive, and the Academy keeps its reputation: no apparent gender bias is observable. When it comes to the success rate, the story is gloomy as described in the Academy’s web pages by Sami Pihlström, the chair of the research council for social sciences and humanities, “With scarce resources, the competition for research funding is fierce, and many excellent projects are sadly left without funding.”

Not surprisingly, funding decisions create heated discussions and strong emotions among academics. There are few who are happy, lucky, and successful, and the vast majority who are disappointed, frustrated, and angry. Since applying for the Academy funding is more or less an obligation in universities, and there is no vision for increasing resources, this yearly emotional turmoil cannot be easily avoided. According to what I have heard, someone has even suggested that the days when the Academy announces its funding decisions should be named as the annual days of structural envy.

What is more, discussions on research funding expand beyond academia. My colleague Pia Olsson, having investigated these discussions on Twitter, refers in a blog text to Finnish journalist Ivan Puopolo´s tweet: “Which one would you fund: cancer research or researcher’s self-reflection on the emotions while playing the cello?” The message is clear: public funding should be targeted at research which has obvious, preferably measurable, benefit for taxpayers. This emphasis has strengthened also in political discourse, demanding increasing societal and economic impact from science.

We who are working in the social sciences and humanities face these demands and doubts about the relevance of our work. In this context, we need to legitimate our research and justify why we should be paid from public money. Importantly, it is these fields under a growing pressure in which women researchers and students tend to be the most represented.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki