My mother did the traditional thing when she married in 1963. She left work to raise children. She did housework and in her spare time enjoyed embroidering. She even exhibited her embroidery. But underneath this conventional exterior my mother did things differently.
Mum decided to complete year twelve when I was a baby. Her mother-in-law approved of her studying. “She was pleased to have a daughter in law that had a mind above housework”, recalled my mother. My grandmother had gone to university herself and worked in London and Paris in the 1920s. My mother appreciates the fact that her mother-in-law encouraged her and looked after me while my mother did her year twelve exams.
My father got a new job so we moved away from our family in Melbourne and settled in Hobart. I remember at dinner my father would invariably ask what my mother had done that day. As a seven or eight year old I disliked the question because I knew the dreary response that would come from my mother. “I washed the clothes and hung them out, then I vacuumed the stairs and upstairs….” Zzzzzz. As a child I recognised how deadly dull my mother’s life was and felt sorry for her.
Of course I didn’t say anything to her about that at the time but years later Mum told me how much she dreaded that habitual question from my father. However, my father was listening. “He saw I was bored”, she said. An advertisement in the newspaper attracted my father’s attention. It was about studying at university. He encouraged my mother to apply. This would have been 1972 or 1973.
Mum enrolled in a science degree and studied part-time while we were at primary and high school. It took a long time to complete. When I was in first year university she was finishing her honours thesis, ‘The dynamics of gully scrub in Hobart’. She majored in geography and studied substantial amounts of statistics, botany, geology and information science during her degree. My mother loved science and maths but found writing a chore. When she couldn’t remember a maths formula in an exam she worked it out from first principles. I admire that ability.
Mum’s life-long interest in plants was evident to me when I read her old children’s books. Often I would find a dried flower that Mum pressed between the pages when she was a child. “In my teen years I was very keen on both rocks and flowers”, she said. Referring to university she said, “I did very well in geology… but it required a lot of excursions away from home and you two were young. It wasn’t practical”. We didn’t have any family in Tasmania and there was no after-school care. I remember my parents having difficulty dealing with childcare when Mum had practical classes that did not finish until six o’clock or university during school holidays.
My father urged Mum to do computer science because he could see the importance computers would play in the future. He did a computer course at the university himself, probably a graduate diploma.
Mum started computer science after the last punch card machine in the science faculty had been retired. “They showed us the machine as a relic and told us funny stories about people tripping and spilling cards”, she recalls.
When Mum graduated there were no jobs in her field but programmers were needed. “I only got into programming because of lack of botany jobs in Hobart.” Computer science at university had not appealed to Mum. “It was very boring, theoretical and had nothing to do with what I encountered in my job.” She made a career out of programming in COBOL, the programming language which had been disparaged at university.
Mum’s first programming job was at the Department of Education’s Elizabeth Computing Centre. It was based at the school I attended in years eleven and twelve. I remember in our year twelve computer studies class we were told how the Centre had networked all the Department’s offices in the state – quite advanced for state education systems at the time.
From there my mother moved onto programming at a wool-broking business. When she moved back to Melbourne after my father died she got a job at the large supermarket chain, Coles. Once again she was programming in COBOL. My mother was one of a team of programmers who helped to manage the computer systems which ran the warehouses that are the final staging post before the food comes to our supermarkets. In each of the organisations where she worked most of the programmers were men but there were also a few women programmers.
Reflecting on her life in science and technology after she married Mum recognises the importance of the support and encouragement of her husband. He urged her to enrol at university and supported her endeavour during the years it took to complete her degree. When Mum started working I remember Dad felt that he had a responsibility to do more housework. I had never seen him vacuuming before and his style was quite funny. He didn’t believe in gently vacuuming around furniture. No, he lifted the lounge furniture and vigorously vacuumed underneath.
As Mum’s life in education and work shows men have an important role in encouraging women to fulfil their potential. The story of my father and the vacuum demonstrates that it does not have to be an extravagant gesture. Ongoing small acts of consideration and encouragement are ideal.
Since computers were invented women have been programmers. The programmers of the ENIAC computer, one of the world’s first electronic computers were all women. It was a woman, Grace Hopper, who was instrumental in developing the COBOL programming language which was so widely adopted by business world-wide from the 1960s.
And who started it all? Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, is recognised as the world’s first programmer. Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day where we recognise women’s achievements in science, technology and maths. I have written this post about my mother in recognition of her work and the work of many other women around the world who do not star but who quietly and competently work with information technology.
Women have been working capably with computers for a long time.
This is the third in a series of posts about my mother’s education and work in science, maths and technology. In the first post I share my mother’s memories of her school education in Victorian country high schools of the 1950s. The next post was about my mother’s work as a technical assistant in research laboratories in Melbourne in the early 1960s.
I am interested in exploring the work of the Elizabeth Computing Centre in the 1970s and 1980s. If you know anything about this, please contact me at perkinsy1 at gmail dot com