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Social and Technology History: How it made me an Early Adopter

In the early 70s I was hired as one of the first male operators in AT&T’s Bell System, then the largest corporation in the world (think Microsoft, Google, Cisco), The Telephone Company, the first electronic social network, a forerunner of today’s social media.

I stepped into a world that for decades had been the enclave of acceptable “woman’s work.” As a result it became a theme in my working life, dealing with the massive social dynamic of gender politics and the very real conflicts between men and women in the workplace. It paved the way for me to be set on a road bridging the gap between the WWII "Greatest Generation" who ran things and us "Boomers" who questioned why things were run that way. My early work experience provided me with skills to see with pretty good clarity the tension that others don’t always see. The skills required to navigate the waters of historic social change, coupled with work tasks that required interacting with people over a vast telephone network, prepared me for social media today. It is an explanation of why I became an accidental Early Adopter.

This 1953 Western Electric (the AT&T subsidiary that manufactured switchboards) operator recruitment ad indicates clearly the job of telephone operator, which could be every bit as complex as working a testboard, was for “girls” of any age only. The men have finished their “men’s work” of building the switchboard and the girls were now needed to “man” the switchboards, for much lower wages than men.

Market forces were not at work then. If they had, then the Bell System would not have been a regulated monopoly and on a larger scale, not with gender job roles and pay treatment. In 1948 and through the early 1950’s Operator Toll Dialing was introduced nationwide, the forerunner of customer Direct Distance Dialing (DDD). Long distance traffic was rapidly increasing and the country was humming along towards the economic recovery of 1954.

The demand for women as telephone operators and service representatives was very high and often difficult to constantly recruit for. If market forces were truly at play then the wages of these woman’s jobs should have skyrocketed due to supply and demand. The social interference of assigned gender roles had a significant economic impact on the entire economy. The government interference with attempting to correct assigned gender roles and pay treatment later had unintended consequences on the economy.

In 1973 Stanford University’s Sandra L. Bem and Daryl J. Bem published a report funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, “Does Sex-biased Job Advertising 'Aid and Abet' Sex Discrimination?” in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (1973, 3, 1, pp 6- 18). The article answered the question:

“Do [these] advertising practices aid and abet discrimination in employment by actually discouraging applicants of one sex or the other from applying for jobs for which they are otherwise well qualified? The two studies reported in this article sought to answer this question empirically. Both were conducted as part of legal testimony, the first in a suit filed by the EEOC against American Telephone and telegraph Company, the second in a suit filed by the National Organization of Women against The Pittsburgh Press."

The use of the Scientific Method, a “hard” science test on Social Science, a “soft” science, for use in a court of law to argue a social case with the potential for economic disruption is still being debated today. Nonetheless it was allowed to be introduced and the course of events seemed inevitable due to the social pressures of the time.

AT&T signed a Consent Decree with the EEOC and the US Justice Department on January 18, 1973 that opened the door for specific hiring quotas for targeted underrepresented groups. My slot had been secured by federal decree in a Bell System job and my job duties were mandated to be “nontraditional” or in the old parlance, woman’s work.

I never objected to performing those jobs because I was young, grew up outside of the US and generally I wasn't looking for a “man’s job” anyway since for me it would likely have meant being a dreaded “suit.” What I did strenuously object to was the limitation it placed on my career mobility. During the recession of the 70s what little hiring occurred across the nation happened mostly in nontraditional jobs that were being filled by force of hand of the federal government. My fate was sealed.

Technology and social change were meeting in the vast Bell System and other corporations like IBM right at the time I was in college and working at the local Bell Company as a nontraditional male operator. The mood on campuses versus that in technology giants such as AT&T and IBM was a contrast. The technology giants were forced into melding cultures by meddling and our generation was expected to deal with it. The effect of that era of social change, technology and economic conditions on the macro economy is still being studied today.

In the long run for me personally it was instrumental to my becoming an Early Adopter. The skills I learned helped me assist people in adapting technology to people and social change, instead of the other way around. Boomers took the old networks that were locked down and secured away from the average user, except with the intervention of workers like telephone operators, bringing networks direct to the user. The box of Pandora was opened and as we are once again in the midst of great social change, it helps to look back to see how we got here for guidance through the present to the future.


The first telephone operators were teenage boys and this short video explains why they were quickly replaced by women...