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Book Review - Recoding Gender

 ·  ☕ 3 min read


Title: Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing

Author: Janet Abbate

Recommended if: You’re interested in learning more about the history of programming as a career, particularly from a feminist point of view. Also if you read The Mythical Man Month and thought it was somewhat (or extremely) sexist in its assumptions. And maybe, if you have no interest in these things, you’re the perfect audience for this book, because it will give you an appreciation of why you should care.

Book structure

Recoding Gender is divided into five chapters, which roughly move forward chronologically in time:

  1. Breaking Codes and Finding Trajectories: Women at the Dawn of the Digital Age
  2. Seeking the Perfect Programmer: Gender and Skill in Early Data Processing
  3. Software Crisis or Identity Crisis? Gender, Labor, and Programming Methods
  4. Female Entrepreneurs: Reimagining Software as a Business
  5. Gender in Academic Computing: Alternative Career Paths and Norms

Following these chapters is an extensive list of notes, a bibliography, and an index.

I found chapters 1 and 4 to be the most interesting, but it was also cool to see the parallels between challenges of hiring programmers both as they were presented historically in chapter 2 and those discussed in the present on sites like Hacker News and reddit; and the success stories presented in chapter 5 were a lovely way to conclude the book.

General comments

If you’re looking for a book that will make you a better programmer, Recoding Gender is not it - this is not a technical text by any means. Rather, this is a book you should read in order to become more aware of the historical sex-typing and biases that have existed in computer programming throughout its entire existence as an industry. It’s a book that will make you a better colleague and citizen.

Computer programming began in a time when it was legal to print job ads for men in a different section in the newspaper from job ads for women, and to fire women when they became pregnant. Hiring women was sometimes seen as an advantage because it was legal to pay them less than their male counterparts, but if a job sounded too skilled, then it became culturally unacceptable for a woman to have that title.

This is the history that Recoding Gender reveals, and it’s one that it’s important to know about: “Institutional sexism” is a very real thing, and it’s one that we’re still living the effects of today, as new generations grow up viewing their parents and grandparents as role models.

It’s a short book; it will not take you very long to read Recoding Gender, and it’s absolutely worth it.

Some women whose careers you should read about

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River (RheingoldRiver) is a MediaWiki developer and the manager of Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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