Entirely Missing The Point Of Dame Stephanie Shirley And FI Group


The Guardian has yet another one of those pieces talking about the terrible problems of gender discrimination in the computing and tech industries. There’re few women and this is a problem. Well, that could be true, certainly. It might be that some larger portion of women don’t like that sort of work than men. Could be that the patriarchy keeps them all out of such remunerative careers – not that being a Javascript Kiddie is well paid these days. That’s something to be solved by empirical research really, not that the example of James Damore gives us much hope anyone will be allowed to talk about it properly*.

OK, important subject, certainly one being talked about a lot. But we get given that great example of Dame Stephanie Shirley. The point, the moral, of the story being entirely missed.

Women continued to program, but they had to do it without the support of major institutions. One example was the entrepreneur Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, who used a masculine nickname to sidestep sexism. Shirley started a freelance programming company with an explicitly feminist business model after finding herself unable to advance in government and industry. She employed hundreds of other women who had similarly had to leave the workforce. Shirley gave these women an opportunity to use their skills in the service of the nation’s economy by giving them the option to work from home, filling some of the gaps left by this exodus of trained computer professionals from full-time computing work.

Shirley’s business, built on women’s labor and expertise, went on to become a multimillion-dollar corporation that did mission-critical programming for government and private industry. As the government scrambled for male computing talent, for instance, a team of her female programmers, led by Ann Moffatt, programmed the black box for the Concorde jet. As Shirley’s business flourished, many other companies and even the British government itself suffered for lack of programming talent.

The irony is that this shortage had been intentionally engineered by the refusal to continue to employ female technologists in these newly prestigious jobs. Throughout history, when jobs are seen as more important, or are better paid, women are squeezed out – hence the need for protective legislation that ensures equality of opportunity in hiring and job advertisements.

Well, not quite the refusal to employ in those jobs, the culture of the time thought that women with young children shouldn’t go out to work. Whatever you think of the right or wrong of that it wasn’t something limited to programming or tech. Other than that, not a bad description. As Dame Stevie herself has been known to point out:

But it is to entirely miss the point of the story, isn’t it. That point being. Yep, sure, there was discrimination against women with children in the past. That discrimination being costly, as Gary Becker has pointed out. Not hiring competent people as a result of just not wanting to hire that sort means that those competent people are cheaper. At which point someone can hire all that cheap talent and go clean up in the marketplace. As Dame Stevie did and as Dame Stephanie tells us she did.

Now keep thinking – yes, it’s hard, I know, following a chain of logic is difficult – to look at today. We’ve not got people deliberately and specifically targeting these cheap and wondrous women who can work in tech, do we? Those who are so grossly underpriced by the machinations of the Patriarchy? Therefore – and do recall that programming is about logic – the absence of people exploiting the underpricing is good evidence of the absence of the discrimination leading to the underpricing, isn’t it.

The absence of Dame Stevies is that very evidence of the absence of the gender discrimination that Dame Stevie so successfully – and gloriously – exploited. That is, it’s just wonderful to call on the example as evidence. But it is important to understand the implication of it, what is it actually evidence of? But then, you know, the Guardian and logic?

*Despite the fact that Damore was right this isn’t an insistence that he was. Only that if you can’t talk about it in whatever left or right field manner you want then we’re not going to zero in on the correct answer, are we? Recall Galton’s Ox….