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

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