Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Internal Memo That Allowed IBM's Female Employees to Get Married (theatlantic.com)
160 points by JumpCrisscross on Feb 4, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

> "When they were computing the orbits of outer planets on the SSEC [IBM's Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, which operated between 1948 and 1952] the machine took up an entire room, including the ceiling, under the floor and all the walls," she tells Bosker. "My husband has 13 symphonies on his iPod Mini and they only take up a third of the space. That boggles my mind. You don't even know what a miracle you're living in."

My first thought was, "Wow, 13 symphonies take up a third of an entire room?", and then I thought about it and realized it's probably time for more coffee.

Yeah, we're all spoiled children nowadays.

The envelope works out, though. iPod Minis were only 4-6 GB, so you're only talking 1300MB-2GB of space used. 100MB per symphony is reasonable for a 30+ minutes of high-bitrate music.

You obviously havent been to a live symphony performance. The only person that I know of who had the audacity to attempt such a thing was Charles Ives.

Which of our business practices company policies are going to be discriminatory, detrimental, outdated, and headline worthy in 60 years? I realize IBM's policy had its roots in a post war era but even the memo 'temporarily' rescinding the policy reads wrong.

Immigration policies? They're really a governmental issue that has become heavily politicized but they seem to me to be ripe for change.

Intellectual property? Will there be progress made or will we still be arguing about copyright length, patent trolls, and trademark infringement? IP issues don't seem to be in the same category of basic human equality, though at times they reach that point (drug medication?)

Universal healthcare? Work/Life balance?

Mandatory urine testing seems vaguely creepy/invasive already, at least outside a narrow range of machine-operator type jobs. If you're working as a clerk or programmer or something, imo a company should limit itself to judging whether your work product meets its criteria. If it doesn't, they can lay you off, and it hardly matters whether the reason is that you're a pothead, just lazy, bad at your job, actively trying to screw with the company, or some other reason. Delving into your bodily fluids to try to determine if you're a good employee is weird.

> Mandatory urine testing

I don't think these are the "IP issues" to which he was referring.

You are shameless.

Actually, drug testing is a good measure of impulsivity and distractibility. If a person cannot manage to pass a drug test, they lack self control and are likely to do things like bitch out customers and break expensive equipment.

The self control aspect of drug tests are probably a pretty good proxy for IQ—ADHD is correlated with a substantial 10 point drop in IQ.

You could just as well test for salt consumption as cocaine. The point is to check whether the applicant can hold their shit together for a few days for something as important as a job.

Drug testing is also a good measure of how big-brotherish a company is, and whether it's worth working for. This swings both ways.

Yeah, that's how I take it. I don't ingest any substances that would cause any problems on a drug test, but it's a huge red flag for me that the company most likely 1) is run by bureaucrats; and 2) wants to control my private life. More viscerally, I just find the whole "report to a facility and urinate on command" thing unpleasant and weird and will prefer companies that don't subject me to such indignities. And some companies demand it several times per year!

The point is that it's very easy for a company to measure the metrics they should care about (i.e. quality and quantity of work output) rather than making random correlations.

An IQ test is also a good proxy for an IQ test: but there would probably be an outcry if companies started basing performance reviews directly on an IQ test.

[citation needed]

The ADHD data is from Russell Barkley's research textbooks.

Parental leave, and childcare more generally. In a society with privatized child-rearing where increasingly both parents work, the childcare issues are just brutal. For parents and children.

This feels like something that (together with healthcare) should be decoupled from the employer as much as possible.

It may be reasonable to handle childcare and healthcare individually with privatised services. It may be reasonable to have them handled centrally for almost everyone by the government, as in Scandinavia.

But having to rely on your relations with employer for these issues is just begging to be abused, and often is - where the employees are sufficiently vulnerable, they get abused even more by this.

Completely agreed. Mandating that employers pay parents not to work is hugely problematic; for starters, it creates an economically rational incentive to avoid hiring women of childbearing age. If society believes that having children and taking time off to raise them should be encouraged, then society should pay for it, not individual businesses.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, parental leave is shared by both parents. Out of the 16 months total, each parent is guaranteed two months, and the couple can divide the remaining 12 months as they wish. Many still give the woman all of it, but there's a growing trend to split it equally. Among my peers - university educated upper middle class - everyone splits it equally.

And, when parental leave is mostly split equally, you remove the basis for discrimination against women in this area.

By requiring that the male parent take part of the parental leave, it encourages men to get more involved with their children and family life and being a father. Which is a good thing IMO.

(This is presuming there is exactly one man in the relationship, there could be 0, 1 or 2)

Of course, if (as is often the case) the woman prefers to focus on children while the man prefers to work, you harm both parents.

Correct. However part of the thinking/motive of this approach, is that many men who want to focus on children are not able / comfortable with taking time off, and programmes like this help them. The theory being that this approach harms less people than "no restrictions which in practice means women take all the time off".

That preference is for the most part a social construct that is further reinforced by the salary gap between men and women. By encouraging couples to split parental leave equally, you lessen the hiring discrimination against women in child-bearing age, which in turn lessens couples' preference for letting the least-paid parent take the most parental leave, and thus you have a positive spiral leading to more gender equality.

Cases where the 'free market' fails, are cases for mandatory governmental regulation.

I personally struggle with the idea of offering benefits based on your family status. I realize this is not a protected class and probably isn't because it is a very common form of discrimination. People with children generally receive preferential treatment and additional benefits than their single/child-free coworkers.

To me, the future should be free of workplaces offering parental leave and children benefits as it discriminates against those that 1) don't want children or 2) can't have them.

It's not "discrimination" any more than having bathrooms is discrimination against people who have a catheter and urine bag, having a company parking lot is discrimination against people who don't have cars, having retirements benefits are discrimination against people who drop dead at 64, or having birth control covered by insurance is discrimination against the forever alone.

Under 20% of women are still childless by 40-44 (i.e. the practical end of their child-bearing years), and that number seems to have peaked. That means 80% of women (and presumably men assuming things are at least somewhat symmetric) will have children at some point. It's a basic biological function that is relevant to the large majority of the population at some point in their lives that society has unsurprisingly found a way to accommodate.

Not to mention that having and raising children generates a large positive externality. You benefit in the present from the assumption that people will continue to have children in the future. E.g. investment into Silicon Valley is modulated on their being tons of 18-25 year olds to watch advertising 10, 20, 30 years from now. Raising an educating a future taxpayer is literally an investment in the country and in all the businesses that will still be around 10, 20, 30 years from now and need young workers.

"... having a company parking lot is discrimination against people who don't have cars ..."

Interesting comparison. It's not unusual for companies to offer a cash alternative for employees who don't use the company parking lot.

Maybe child care will end up something like that. For example: providing a cash bonus or complementary gym membership if the employee doesn't make use of the company daycare program.

And offering medical leave discriminates against the healthy people.

Perhaps ideally it would be just a general sabbatical period. Those who have children can use that time to fill the traditional maternity/paternity time and those who cannot/will not have children can use that time to do whatever they please.

I realize this is not a protected class

FYI, family & marital status is a "protected class" in the EU. (Though we don't use that 'protected class' terminology).

How do you feel about the idea of universal child care?

I figure as long as we have no major criticism with public school, we shouldn't have too much of a problem extending it all the way to the cradle.

> Which of our business practices company policies are going to be discriminatory, detrimental, outdated, and headline worthy in 60 years?

If the next 60 years are anything like the last 60 years then holy crap the changes will be huge.

* outdated Offices. There will still be buildings in 60 years but office parks and sprawl in general will be gone.

* detrimental 40+ hour work weeks, screens, sitting, just about any physical job today. I'd like to think with the increase of technology the number of actual hours people work will drop considerably

* discriminatory

- Requiring someone to physically appear or give any indication of race/gender/age during an interview. I could see this becoming the norm in 60 years where you interview people wearing suits like in a scanner darkly.

- General acceptance of the gradient between gay and straight.

* headline worthy

"US Presidential candidates Toshiko Abe, Jennifer Summers, Linda Powell Jr and Frank Lancaster to debate the digital constructs of Douglas Adams, Anthony Burgess, Jon Stewart and Mr Rogers. Moderated by George Carlin's head in jar." ... gotta have hope!

- Requiring someone to physically appear or give any indication of race/gender/age during an interview. I could see this becoming the norm in 60 years where you interview people wearing suits like in a scanner darkly.

As far as I know, some orchestras do this already. When interviewing a new person, the applicant plays behind a screen. Once they started doing that, they found they were hiring more women. (i.e. there was a previous subconscience bias against a women)

"gotta have hope"

Ehhhhh, I wouldn't hope for "digital recreations" based on someone's subjective impression of a person :p

Some of the rest sounds nice, though!

>>detrimental 40+ hour work weeks, screens, sitting, just about any physical job today. I'd like to think with the increase of technology the number of actual hours people work will drop considerably

This hasn't been the case in the past 60 years. What makes you think it will be the case in the next 60?

The trend over the last 100 years has been that as we increase our productivity we increase our wants. More stuff, more work. Bigger houses, more food, more cars, more stuff.

I imagine this will start to flatline, and increasing demand isn't going to be sustainable enough to fully employ even half the workforce. I could be wrong.


Discrimination based on employment status (for example, discriminating against people who aren't employed when applying for a new job). A few states have laws making it illegal already.

I suspect that CAPTCHA will be viewed as a symptom of a mindset of bigoted superstition, and treated with the same disdain as witch hunts and cargo cults.

Comical statement, but CAPTCHA's were indeed created because of need (bots exist, and aren't make believe!).

The only way CAPTCHA's will be considered bigoted is when the AI spammers use become sentient and take umbrage against being discriminated against for not being human.

Probably any company that supports "traditional marriage", ie excludes same sex couples.

In office workers vs remote workers - but I have a dog in that hunt.

Profit sharing

You think profit sharing will seem conceptually outrageous in the future? Or the opposite?

The lack of profit sharing will seem outrageous in the future :)

"they wanted to hire people who had fought in the war, who were then coming back from World War II and wanted jobs. I think you could understand that, and people did understand that at the time."

So, it was really affirmative action (for veterans)!

This reminds me of a comment from Richard Hamming, who worked at Bell Labs following the war:

Q: But what I sense among the young people these days is a real concern over the risk taking in a highly competitive environment. Do you have any words of wisdom on this?

A: Ed David was concerned about the general loss of nerve in our society. It does seem to me that we've gone through various periods. Coming out of the war, coming out of Los Alamos where we built the bomb, coming out of building the radars and so on, there came into the mathematics department, and the research area, a group of people with a lot of guts. They've just seen things done; they've just won a war which was fantastic. We had reasons for having courage and therefore we did a great deal. I can't arrange that situation to do it again. I cannot blame the present generation for not having it, but I agree with what you say; I just cannot attach blame to it. It doesn't seem to me they have the desire for greatness; they lack the courage to do it. But we had, because we were in a favorable circumstance to have it; we just came through a tremendously successful war. In the war we were looking very, very bad for a long while; it was a very desperate struggle as you well know. And our success, I think, gave us courage and self confidence; that's why you see, beginning in the late forties through the fifties, a tremendous productivity at the labs which was stimulated from the earlier times. Because many of us were earlier forced to learn other things - we were forced to learn the things we didn't want to learn, we were forced to have an open door - and then we could exploit those things we learned. It is true, and I can't do anything about it; I cannot blame the present generation either. It's just a fact.

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html - the best essay on doing great work that I know of.

My mother tells of that time. Women, who had been an industrial force during the war, were admonished that their place was in the home, and they need to get out of the work force and marry returning veterans.

Affirmative action is not when you fire someone to make way for a privileged class.

We _have_ affirmative action because of these more extreme forms of discrimination.

Soldiers and veterans are not privileged. That's why we got the G.I. bill for example.

Edit: it seems like you also mean that firing someone cannot be affirmative action. I disagree.

Vietnam-era veterans are privileged from a non-discrimination perspective in private industry.

Veterans and service-disabled veterans are federally (and in some states) given privileges in contracting and some employment (police, civil service, etc.).

As well, NG/Reserve service is legally protected.

At least at state university system in Florida, there is something called Veterans' Preference:


edit: Veterans' not Veteran's

It's not privilege because it's not undeserved. They paid a price that affected their ability to compete in the workplace when they got back home. It's a form of social compensation.

I'm not saying it's deserved or not, but it's a legally protected privileged status.

Women were fired to make room for returning soldiers and veterans because of male privilege, not because of "soldier privilege", certainly.

> Soldiers and veterans are not privileged.

Some people think males are automatically privileged, and veterans (especially back then) are and were overwhelmingly male.

I think that's a misunderstanding of the concept (that is, an idea that applies to a group does not automatically apply to every individual in that group) but there you have it.

> Affirmative action is not when you fire someone to make way for a privileged class.

What's the difference? In one case the less-privileged person had a job for a while and made some money, in the other case they never got a job in the first place.

Actively firing a qualified employee because of bigotry versus never hiring a qualified employee because of bigotry? They're both terrible, but that poster was just clarifying the terminology.

"these more extreme forms of discrimination"

Oh kiss my ass.

In those days the men worked, and the women stayed home to take care of the children.

It's not like the returning soldiers could marry employed women and then be house-husbands.

And you know it.

Except that "in those days" the vast majority of women also worked -- just not in white-collar occupations.


Firstly, the feminist bullshit you linked to doesn't support your point, because it lists women's occupations like "governesses" and "middle-management" - is that supposed to be blue collar?

Secondly, the period referred to in the original post was like a century later than that referred to in the feminist bullshit.

Thirdly, the feminist bullshit is trying to "put to bed" the "myths" of the nuclear household, non-working woman and the child-devoted mother. You try telling the matriarchs in my family that these are "myths".

And fourthly, even if the feminist bullshit were true, you still didn't address my point that the returning soldier 70 years ago couldn't get away with being a house husband. Hell, I doubt you could get away with that now.

I admire how you managed to squeeze so much wrongness into just two lines of comment.

Your assertion was that "In those days the men worked, and the women stayed home to take care of the children." As the link makes clear, this has historically, in the 1950s, and in the present day only been true of upper middle class families, where the man's income was sufficient to support the entire family. Everybody else, man or woman, had to work together to scrape together enough income and outsource childcare in some form or another.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_workforce#19th_cen... (and onward)

No the feminist bullshit you linked to originally was about the Victorian era.

And the feminist bullshit wikipedia page section on the 20th century contradicts you (and itself).

Money quote: "In the beginning of the 20th century ... The role of men was to support the family financially."

I tire of this. Either you somehow evidence how the hell a returning soldier in 1945 could become a house-husband or shut the hell up.

You appear to be wilfully ignoring the context there, so let me quote it for you:

In the beginning of the 20th century, women were regarded as society's guardians of morality; they were seen as made finer than men and were expected to act as such. Their role was not defined as workers or money makers. Women were expected to hold on to their innocence until the right man came along so that they can start a family and inculcate that morality they were in charge of preserving. The role of men was to support the family financially.

In other words, the idealized (upper-middle-class) role was that men should be able to support their family financially, but obviously not all of them actually did.

No, you are ignoring things. Namely that the article doesn't say that this was for the upper class at all.

Let me clue you in on some basic history.

Way back when, it wasn't just the women but the whole damn family who were working, in horrible dangerous conditions down the coal mine.

Social reform led to the children being pulled out of the mine and put in school. And it became a normative thing. The children were expected to be in bloody school. And this was an excellent result.

Slower than it should have happened, women got dragged out of the mine and put in the kitchen. And it became a normative thing. Women were expected to be in the bloody kitchen. And this was an excellent result.

Finally, men increasingly got dragged out of horrid, dangerous jobs like coal mining and sewage-toshing, and more into safer, more lucrative jobs like manufacturing or trucking or even (gasp!) office jobs. With their children safely in school, and their wives safely at home, men were expected to be the bloody breadwinners. And this was an excellent result. A massive, hard-won 20th century social advancement over what came before.

Then, a bunch of Joan Collins shoulderpad-wearing idiots out of the Women's studies department decided that this advance was "Oppression" and "Male privilege", completely missing the unbalanced expectations on men.

And since the 1970s these harpies have been putting out the kind of garbage that you linked to, trying to undermine the massive social advance that was the "1950s" family norm.

Note that the fight to get women and children out of the mines and mills was all about the working classes and never about the rich, because the rich didn't need to go down the mine anyway.

I'm sure if you google for "family wage" you can find more details about it. Here is one link I found http://www.profam.org/docs/acc/thc_acc_dectnf.htm

So women are "harpies" if they want to have a job or career instead of being "expected to be in the bloody kitchen"? The 21st century must be a bewildering place for you.

Out of curiosity I had a look at your comment history and seriously: tone down the insults and anger will you. It doesn't help.

The harpies are the ones who claim that women would have had careers if only they weren't expected to be in the kitchen. In reality, they would have been in the proverbial coal mine if they hadn't been expected to be in the kitchen.

Seriously, thank you for this post. It is an insightful gem within a sea of politics, guilt, & blame.

From the linked Huff Po article: "I was doing a lot of programming from home. I would write out the program on paper using Fortran [a programming language], then I would mail it in to key punch operators at NYU, they would punch the cards out and then I would use the cards to run the program."

Programming on paper from home, that's incredible.

You youngsters dont realize what it was like to have one day turnaround. Yeah, one day to find a syntax error. Mailing in your coding sheets was only marginally slower than sticking them in your out basket and getting them back a day or two later. Even longer if you wanted them verified.

It's awesome to hear that an 86 year old woman is still programming!

I find articles like this absolutely fascinating. And to think this was only ~60 years ago.

"the Company's normal policy of non-employment on the regular payroll of married women unless they are the support of the family"

That's a pretty twisted mindset. What in the world was IBM hoping to achieve by such policies? And how had they come into the business of supervising societal roles, instead of making money for their shareholders by hiring the most qualified people for the job?

Back then it was the most normal thing in the world, and obviously true to any but the most unnaturally twisted minds that the proper role of a man was to earn a salary sufficient to support the whole family, and the proper role of a woman to be a housewife and mother.

Thus, a woman who worked while married was shirking her duties to her husband and children, and taking away some man's chance to build a family. And that man was probably a war veteran! Support the troops!!!

IBM's shareholder would probably have sold their shared in disgust and boycotted their products if they had openly undermined these norms.

Exactly. Let's dig up the hiring practices of the Bank of England from the 1700's and see how outraged we can all get.

It was the "Don't be Evil" of it's time.

I don't understand why you added emphasis to "unless they are the support of the family."

Obviously the whole thing is pretty regressive and messed up by modern lights, but the emphasized passage is a mitigating factor, one that, I think, shows that while there was plenty of institutionalized prejudice, there was little actual malice.

IBM's policy was, "Naturally women should go home and be housewives if their husbands have jobs. But if their husbands don't have jobs, and the family depends on the wife's income, then the woman can keep her job." The first part is the risible bit, the second part much less so.

There are 60 years of massive social change in the answer to that question. It's worth understanding where we were and where we've gotten to so we can continue to try to get further.

Your confusion comes from believing that making money is important and raising children, charity work and home management aren't important. If you believe they are equally important, then you will see that the conventions of the time were equally fair to men and women, or equally unfair if you like.

In a historical sense the real question is how did companies get out ofthe business of supervising societal roles. That's an old, old tradition and one we seem to be naturally drawn to. Authority is general, not specific. If someone tell you what to do at work they are an authority generally.

An officer disciplines his soldiers. He has authority over dress, behavior, language, hygiene. His role doesn't end with teaching them how to fight and giving them fighting orders. Teachers had similar authority. It did't end with school.

Landlords in the days when they were a class had similar authority. So did priests. etc. etc.

Well people thought women wouldn't be as good employees as men.

"Oh they'll get irrational and emotional! They won't be able to do high pressure things, and will break down and cry when the going gets tough. They will just fawn over a baby when they see one. They're also not very good at mathematics"

Interesting. So why did they change? And the memo is specific that it's a temporary policy, so how did it become permanent or is it still on the IBM books as a 'temporary' policy of allowing women to marry?

Wikipedia says[1], IBM experienced a growth spurt towards the end of the war. If they had any sort of hiring quota to reach, it would make sense to relax eligibility rules.

Additionally, the presidency of the company changed hands from Thomas Watson Sr to Thomas Watson Jr around that time, and he may have been more progressive. He drafted the "company's first equal opportunity policy letter" in 1953.


Any policy that distinguished between employees on the grounds of gender or marital status is illegal in many countries.

Almost certainly there are many newer policies in IBM which state now that marital status and gender aren't to be taken into account.

So why did they change?

More broadly: the feminist movement.

From the original interview: "The only advantage you had over a newcomer was that you were prepared to read the manual." So true still today. I am always astonished by how much time some programmers are wasting by not reading manuals and how much of a competitive advantage even basic reading comprehension and willingness to do so is.

An interesting thing to me (a non-american looking in) is lines like: "non employment of married women unless they are the support of their family" & "* it was the end of the war and they wanted to hire people who had fought in the war, who were then coming back from World War II and wanted jobs.*"

This is anachronistic in terms of gender roles and whatnot but if you set that aside you see that IBM (and presumably all big employers) saw themselves as having a paternal-like role. Something associated with social democrat policies in the West and a Confucianist mentality in the east. Either way it's probably related to hints or requests by the Nation's Leaders. It's not very "Free Market^," in its modern interpretation.

^Quotes because I don't think Adam Smith, for example, would have had a problem with it.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact