Updated: Mar 8
Women in Telecoms – Choose to Challenge
March 8th is celebrated around the world as International Women's Day. Women’s role in telecommunications have remained underexplored despite the accumulation of work on women in the history of various technology related roles. British society however has highly depended on and valued the work of women in relation to the advancements of telecommunications & technology. We look back down memory lane to see how women have shaped our past & present, their contribution and pioneering achievements, and we look forward to empowered women who choose to challenge for the future.
Wiring back to the golden days
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard (November 25, 1857 – January 3, 1923), was an American businesswoman, and the daughter of Boston lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard. As the wife of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the first practical telephone, she took the married name Mabel Bell. From the time of Mabel's courtship with Graham Bell in 1873, until his death in 1922, Mabel became and remained the most significant influence in his life. Folklore held that Bell undertook telecommunication experiments in an attempt to restore her hearing which had been destroyed by disease close to her fifth birthday, leaving her completely deaf for the remainder of her life. However she was not just an inspiration, in fact in the early years of the company around 1885, Mabel Gardiner became the President of Bell Telephone Company, which later became the American Telegraph & Telephone Company – now one of the largest telecom companies worldwide “AT&T”.
In the UK, Miss M Craig was the first telegraphist in the UK. In 1859, the London District Telegraph Company decided to give 45 telegraphist positions to women, who proved to be better than their male counterparts for this role. Around 1868, there were more than 200 women working as telegraphists for companies such as Electric Telegraph Company.
Following their success as telegraphists and despite early reservations from management and the effect of women in a mixed workplace, women proved their ability in the role as telephone operators. Mrs R Hayward Claxton was the UK’s first female operator and, after pioneering the trade in Liverpool in the 1880s, travelled to London to train the first female operators in the capital.
During WW1, women labourers helped with the construction of telegraph lines. An Engineering Dept Staff circular dated March 1941 made clear the employment of the first female engineers by the GPO was strictly a temporary measure. It read: “Employment of female labour is an emergency war time measure which will be discontinued at the conclusion of hostilities, and that the temporary character of their employment will be made clear to the women when they are recruited.”
These employees were classed as Temporary Female Assistants, or TFAs. However, while the position was intended to assist with the more menial technical tasks, the TFA’s were soon undertaking the same skilled labour tasks as their male counterparts. One of these engineers was Mary Morley, a veteran of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and a wireless operator for Bomber Command HQ. Following her service, she joined the GPO at Stanford. Her personal account reads: “Yes, as a Female Assistant, I went to Birmingham on an all-female engineers’ course and when I passed I went back to Stanford where I was given a little green van to carry out servicing telephones and fault finding in private houses.”
By 1943, 4,604 women were essentially working as engineers – a massive increase from 615 in April 1941.
Post War Era & Signals for Change
Before 1944, many women worked under the so-called marriage bar. This required female employees to resign from work upon marriage. In 1944, this rule was overturned for teachers and BBC workers – in 1954, this overturning further included the Civil Service, local government and the Post Office.
After a decade later, nearly 60 percent of roles in the General Post Office were for men only, including telecoms engineer. For quite some time, it is quite possible to think that, limited as opportunities were, telecoms were one of the first careers which offered women the means to live independently.
After tough times during the war period and announcements of only temporary positions (TFAs for example), engineering positions were finally opened to women in 1965 – roles that were open to men only before were now open to both genders. A milestone.
Now, engineering and working as a technician have all changed – women compete in roles and have a chance of getting the role as much to any other gender. Similar to Mary Gardiner Bell, women have chosen to challenge, and are the pioneers in many fields of telecommunications leading to key inventions we use in our daily lives.
Computer software - Grace Hopper
After joining the US Navy during the Second World War, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was assigned to work on a new computer, called the Mark 1. It was not long before she was at the forefront of computer programming in the 1950s. She was behind the compiler, which could translate instructions into code that computers can read, making programming quicker and ultimately revolutionising how computers worked. Hopper also helped popularised the term "de-bugging" that we still use on computers programmes today, after a moth was removed from inside her machine. "Amazing Grace", as she was known, continued working with computers until she retired from the navy as its oldest serving officer, aged 79.
Caller ID and call waiting - Dr Shirley Ann Jackson
Dr Shirley Ann Jackson is an American theoretical physicist, whose research from the 1970s is responsible for caller ID and call waiting. Her breakthroughs in telecommunications have also enabled others to invent the portable fax, fibre optic cables and solar cells. She is the first African-American woman to gain a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university.
Home security system - Marie Van Brittan Brown
A nurse, who was often home alone, Marie Van Brittan Brown came up with an idea that would make her feel safer. Together with her husband Albert, Van Brittan Brown developed the first home security system in response to the rising crime rates and slow police responses of the 1960s. The device was complicated, with a camera powered by a motor which moved up and down the door to look through a peephole. A monitor in her bedroom also came equipped with an alarm button.
Let’s celebrate those women who bridged the divide and created the lines for others to communicate. Let’s look forward to those that Choose to Challenge, for today and for the future, to building the next generations world class industries and technologies.