5

In "The Imitation Game", most of the staff portrayed on-screen were male, and Joan Clarke faced sexist assumptions that because she's a woman, she was in the wrong room when she tried to go into the examination room for the cross-word solving test.

However, a prominent programmer, Amy Wibowo, disputes this portrayal (from twitter, slightly re-written):

I was really disappointed in the erasure of women code breakers at Bletchley Park. For example, Joan Clarke wasn't an anomaly. There were many women working on breaking the code and they were just not present in the movie. I hate intelligent women in science and mathematics being portrayed as anomalies when it is historically inaccurate. Women get told all the time they "aren't wired for logical thinking" when the truth is that computing used to be considered women's work. To show how egregious omission of women cryptanalysts in the imitation game was, Wikipedia says staff was 80% women. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bletchley_Park

Were staff at Bletchley Park predominantly male, especially the ones involved with the most highly skilled aspects of the decryption effort?

  • 2
    Wikipedia says 80% of 12,000 staff were women. Can you hyperlink (and quote not paraphrase) the notable claim you're questioning; and/or confirm whether you're asking about the 12,000 staff; and/or clarify whence you're asking about, "the most highly skilled aspects of the decryption effort?" – ChrisW Feb 11 '15 at 23:58
  • I think I guess where your "especially the most highly skilled aspects" part of the question comes from: you're asking about the character in the movie, whether her seeming anomalous was realistic. – ChrisW Feb 12 '15 at 0:07
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    The majority of workers were indeed female but they were engaged in lower-level jobs. All the cryptanalysts were male. Since Joan Clarke was female she couldn't be a cryptanalyst - even though she was working as one. She was therefore classified as a linguist in order to get her paid appropriately. Her official designation was "grade: linguist, languages: none". – TheMathemagician May 25 '17 at 13:52
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Large numbers of women worked at BP. The most highly skilled parts of the decryption effort were mostly carried out by men.

The Film

In "The Imitation Game",

The film gives a very different account of the work compared to accounts written by people who worked there. There were a lot more people involved in inventing new techniques and methods and in making breakthroughs. It wasn't just Alan Turing more or less all on his own. BP also worked on more than just Enigma and more than just Naval Enigma - the subject of Hut 8 which Turing led for a period.

Workers at BP

Were staff at Bletchley Park predominantly male,

In Chapter 8 p139‡ of "The Hut Six Story", Gordon Welchman describes some of the workers. One of the principle types of machine used was called the "Bombe".

No outside could be allowed inside after bombes had been delivered. The machines themselves were operated by members of the Women's Royal Naval Service, who were called "Wrens". ... When Gayhurst became operational, bringing the total to some forty to forty-six bombes, it was still felt that the limit would be about seventy bombes, which would require suitable accommodation for some seven hundred Wrens. ... No one could have anticipated that the number of bombe Wrens would rise to around two thousand.

Not all women at BP were operating the bombes of course, but the above may be suggestive of the types of tasks for which some, perhaps many, women were employed at BP.


The Most Highly Skilled

especially the ones involved with the most highly skilled aspects of the decryption effort?

When you write "most highly skilled aspects of the decryption process" you are probably thinking of cryptanalysts, not the more mundane (though vital) work of people why typed ciphertext into Enigma (actually British Typex) machines using settings/keys obtained by the cryptanalysts. Decryption is trivial by comparison with working out the key.

Many of the jobs, though skilled, did not require knowledge of cryptanalysis.

To understand the task of the Wren operators we must first consider the initial setup of a bombe in accordance with a menu prepared in Hut 6. ... The in-out and out-in terminals of nine double-ended scramblers would be connected by twenty-six way cables to the diagonal board in accordance with the diagram. ... The letters under the crib positions indicate initial positions of the top, middle and bottom drums of the bombes scramblers for the start of the run. ... When a drop was sensed, ... indicators would tell a Wren which letter of the test register was involved ... Having noted all this information, which was reported to Hut 6, the Wren operator would reactivate the drive mechanism for the middle and bottom drums ...

and

Recruitment of young women went on even more rapidly than that of young men. We needed more of them to staff the Registration room, the Sheet-stacking room and the decoding room. .... with the whole of Bletchley Park looking for qualified women, we got a great many recruits of high calibre.

The people named by Welchman in connection with work inside Hut 6 were all male - from what I've read (though I may have missed something)


In Chapter 2 p21‡ of "Station X", Michael Smith, writes

At lunchtime, most of the codebreakers, including Barbera Abernethy, would troop out onto the lawn in front of the hous to play rounders.

However, earlier he writes that

Barbera Abernethy joined GC&CS in August 1937 at the age of sixteen, she was fluent in French, German and Flemish and when Deniston asked for a new typist, she found herself dispatched to Broadway.

So it isn't clear whether the most appropriate use was made of the skills available.


In Chapter 14 p114‡ of "Code Breakers, the inside story of Bletchley Park" chapter 14 is by Joan Murray, who wrote:

My next promotion was apparently harder to negotiate, possibly because of my sex, although there was another female mathematical cryptanalyst, working in the cottage. ... Inevitably the duller routine clerical work was done by women.


In Chapter 6 p82‡ of "Enigma and its Achilles Heel" by Hugh Skillen, he reports Jean Alington in 3L (Hut 3 Liaison) as saying

We three women graded every German Enigma signal that came into the hut. ... We each prepared a weekly news sheet for Mr Churchill on the areas we were covering.

So there were women working on important jobs, but the accounts all make it seem they were a minority of those doing (arguably) the most skilled work.


References

† This is the ISBN printed on the book I own. It is now associated with a different title by the same author. I don't know if it is the same book retitled.

‡ Page numbers refer to my UK (usually paperback) copy and may not apply to other printings in other countries.

  • Can you please link the books and media? – Sklivvz Feb 15 '15 at 9:41
  • @Sklivvz I take it you're asking for the page number and a link to Amazon. – ChrisW Feb 15 '15 at 9:50
  • @ChrisW depending, maybe a book is available for free elsewhere and we can link to the specific page directly... :-) – Sklivvz Feb 15 '15 at 9:54
  • @Skliwz: I have crushed-tree copies of the books and don't know if or where they can be found online. I'll dig out ISBN numbers and see what I can do. – RedGrittyBrick Feb 15 '15 at 11:12
2

Part of a collection for the Bletchley Park Trust, this document called "The Women of Bletchley Park (1938-1945)", authored by Gillian Mason (Bletchley Park’s Curator) says "At its peak, nearly twelve thousand people worked at Bletchley Park and its associated outstations; the majority of these were women aged between 18 and 24."

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    ...yes, but doing what? The majority of positions in any field are usually low paying, low skill jobs. Just because you have a small army of candy-striper female nurses in a hospital, it doesn't mean the surgeon is a woman too. So what were their jobs, how many were actually employed as active codebreakers or in cryptanalysis, and not just in simple data entry? – Clockwork-Muse Feb 12 '15 at 12:11
  • @Clockwork-Muse The article doesn't break this down. Just like in a hospital, you are going to have some doctors, lots of nurses, and some candy stripers. The article does say "Women undertook all roles". Intercepting enemy codes via shortwave, couriers, codebreakers, clerical work, Bombe and Colossus operators, cooks, cleaners, maintenance and transportation staff. The article mentions women being recruited via the crossword puzzle ad; clearly the scene in the movie (one woman taking the test in a room otherwise full of men) was a fabrication of the screenwriter for dramatic effect. – tcrosley Feb 12 '15 at 15:29

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