Modern movements that combat instances of institutionalized sexism and gender disparity in the computing industry are the heart and soul of a larger, global force empowering women that continue to be marginalized in long-standing patriarchies. My essay will shed light on a key turning point in the history of technology that demonstrates how today’s discussion of sexism and misogyny are long overdue.

The late 1970s were humble years for the personal computing industry as microcomputers gradually transitioned from a hobbyist fancy to a mainstream tool, but nonetheless, they were critical for shaping how computers would spread during the 1980s. This growth was facilitated by communications between computer hobbyists across the continental United States and beyond, and one particularly powerful segment of these communications were through computing magazines.

Byte magazine was one of the most widely circulated magazines of its kind, reaching an estimated circulation of about 420,000 (third highest of all computer magazines) in the early 1980s. This analysis focuses on Byte’s beginnings, a time where hobbyists discussed ideas, sought help, shared opinions, and planned club events about computing technology. The average hobbyist was relatively young (students to middle-aged adults), relatively wealthy (middle to upper-middle class), and predominantly white.

You might be wondering, was the average 1970s computer hobbyist also a male?

   
Letter from a hobbyist-Bill Gates

   

In a May 1977 issue, Byte randomly selected a group of 2163 fully-subscribed readers to voluntarily participate in a survey. The survey resulted in a statistic heavily skewed relative to the corresponding population distribution, reporting that 1% of Byte’s readership, or “computing enthusiasts”, were Female. Despite the strong 67% response rate, it could be argued voluntary survey bias was present, or an overrepresentation of individuals who have strong opinions. Regardless, the survey of education, gender, and income was only sent to full-subscribed readers, and with no way of indicating multiple readerships per household, it is possible that many women and girls were simply left out.

The gender imbalance evident in Byte reflected its roots in earlier technical cultures such as amateur, or “ham,” radio. In a 2003 article, historian Kristen Haring identified a mutually defining relationship between gender and technology, or “men and machines,” at the center of amateur radio culture. The “technical identities” of amateur radio enthusiasts not only instilled masculinity in modern technology, it created familial divisions based on men’s anxiety over sexual identity and women’s control over the space of the home. Like a prelude to the start of an ongoing saga, amateur radio and all its imperfections soon gave way to a different technological culture formed around personal computing.

The shift from amateur radio to personal computing created the possibility for change in the gendered identity of technical hobbyists. In a letter to the editors published in the November, 1977 issue, Byte reader Leah R O’Connor shed light on the survey’s likely sampling bias. According to O’Connor, the survey represented only the “very small number of single women interested in computers” and obscured the larger number of “married women who are more interested [in computing] than their husbands.” In other words, by not accounting for multiple readers in every subscribing household, Byte had chosen convenience over accuracy.

More than just a complaint against Byte’s sampling methods, O’Connor’s letter represented a growing portion of the Byte readership who supported gender inclusion and challenged the dominant masculinity in the new world of personal computing.