Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The other Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton and her code
You probably think of the actor who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie "Wizard of Oz" but there is another Margaret Hamilton.
Not only is she credited with coining the term "software engineer" but:
Hamilton's work prevented an abort of the Apollo 11 Moon landing:[3] Three minutes before the Lunar lander reached the Moon's surface, several computer alarms were triggered. The computer was overloaded with incoming data, because the rendezvousradar system (not necessary for landing) updated an involuntary counter in the computer, which stole cycles from the computer. Due to its robust architecture, the computer was able to keep running; the Apollo onboard flight software was developed using an asynchronous executive so that higher priority jobs (important for landing) could interrupt lower priority jobs. The fault was attributed to a faulty checklist and the radar being erroneously activated by the crew.
Of course at the time Hamilton was working, software engineering was not a prestigious job. As this article in the Smithsonian points out:
Now, it’s not that managers of yore respected women more than they do now. They simply saw computer programming as an easy job. It was like typing or filing to them and the development of software was less important than the development of hardware. So women wrote software, programmed and even told their male colleagues how to make the hardware better. (It turns out programming is hard, and women are actually just as good at it as men.) 
What changed? Well, male programmers wanted to elevate their job out of the “women’s work” category. They created professional associations and discouraged the hiring of women. Ads began to connect women staffers with error and inefficiency. They instituted math puzzle tests for hiring purposes that gave men who had taken math classes an advantage, and personality tests that purported to find the ideal “programming type.”
This is no surprise. Anything that is considered women's work is automatically disparaged. Or as this excellent blog post persuasively argues: Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value:
One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this? 
The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.” 
What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.
And of course evolutionary psychology was invented (or reinvented from sociobiology) in order to bolster the idea that women are just no good at math and science because of evolutionarily-endowed tendencies, which is why, Larry Summers argued, they have lesser careers in those fields.

Steven Pinker, good friend of scientific racialist Razib Khan, is one of the foremost promoters of evo-psycho, had his ass kicked by Elizabeth Spelke 10 years ago, but you'll never hear about that because Pinker has a great PR machine and most of the media outside of the New Yorker is too reverential towards Pinker to ever critically examine his work. But here is the link to the immortal debate between Spelke and Pinker ten years ago.