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Data with a side of sass

How the so-called "data dollies" made light of late-70s workplace disparities

By Elise Hugus | March 25, 2021

Nine women wearing Data Dolly shirts pose for a photo in the late 70s.
Starting in 1978, the "data dollies" celebrated International Data Dolly Day with colleagues in WHOI's physical oceanography department. Standing, from left: Maren Plueddemann, Mary Ann Lucas, Ellyn Montgomery, Christine Wooding, Carol Alessi, Ann Spencer, Chris Light. Kneeling, from left: Terry McKee and Ellen Levy. (Photo by Nancy Brink, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Starting in 1978, the "data dollies" celebrated International Data Dolly Day with colleagues in WHOI's physical oceanography department. Standing, from left: Maren Plueddemann, Mary Ann Lucas, Ellyn Montgomery, Christine Wooding, Carol Alessi, Ann Spencer, Chris Light. Kneeling, from left: Terry McKee and Ellen Levy. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Brink, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

They called themselves “data dollies.”

It started with a quip. While watching secretaries in WHOI’s Physical Oceanography department go out to lunch with their supervisors on National Secretaries Day, the young women who processed oceanography data in a hallway jokingly decided there should be a day to celebrate their work, too.

So, on November 9, 1978, International Data Dolly Day (IDDD) was born. To commemorate the day, the “dollies” made sweatshirts with a logo featuring two women holding up a peacock, and members of the department brought them flowers and chocolate.

“We’d celebrate Data Dolly Day every year with whoever wanted to be part of it,” remembers Terry McKee, who worked in the physical oceanography department from 1977 until she retired in 2013. “It was a wonderfully silly concept to poke fun at the amusing situation we were in.”

They called themselves “data dollies.”

It started with a quip. While watching secretaries in WHOI’s Physical Oceanography department go out to lunch with their supervisors on National Secretaries Day, the young women who processed oceanography data in a hallway jokingly decided there should be a day to celebrate their work, too.

So, on November 9, 1978, International Data Dolly Day (IDDD) was born. To commemorate the day, the “dollies” made sweatshirts with a logo featuring two women holding up a peacock, and members of the department brought them flowers and chocolate.

“We’d celebrate Data Dolly Day every year with whoever wanted to be part of it,” remembers Terry McKee, who worked in the physical oceanography department from 1977 until she retired in 2013. “It was a wonderfully silly concept to poke fun at the amusing situation we were in.”

The name “data dollies” was a tongue-in-cheek way of calling attention to the essential yet unglamorous work these mostly young, college-educated women performed while not at sea. In those days, ocean current measurements weren’t stored on microchips, but rather, on magnetic cassette tapes. When the instruments came back to the lab, the data was transferred to nine-track tapes stored in WHOI’s computer vault. The “dollies” assembled processing instructions onto IBM punch cards, which had to be physically transported to the computer center for processing on a mainframe Sigma-7 computer.

Half a day later, the data was transformed from strings of 1s and 0s to representations of the speed and direction of ocean currents. If a number was entered into the wrong column, they’d have to start the process all over again. Essentially, the "data dollies" were doing a job that today’s computers perform in the blink of an eye.

“It wasn’t like we were oppressed females, begrudgingly slaving away. We liked what we did, but it started grating on me a little bit that we got pegged as data processors,” says Nancy (Pennington) Brink, who joined the WHOI buoy group soon after graduating with a degree in oceanography in 1973. “We were technicians. We went to sea with all the guys and logged the mooring sheets. So we were part of the buoy group, not secretaries.”

For many of the "data dollies", going to sea was the most alluring part of the job. Brink, who logged 350 days at sea in her 30-year tenure at WHOI, cherishes her memories of voyages to Bermuda, Scotland, and Antarctica. She worked on what was cutting-edge research at the time, collecting data on the interference of internal waves on acoustic signals and running experiments with airplanes to learn about air-sea interactions.

"We liked what we did, but it started grating on me a little bit that we got pegged as data processors. We were part of the buoy group, not secretaries”

—Nancy (Pennington) Brink, original "data dolly"

As mainframe systems evolved to Macintosh computers with a gigabyte of memory, the "data dollies'" roles shifted. Most of the women went on to work for individual scientists as research assistants. Data was coming in faster, from satellites and networked computers on the early Internet. Brink, working for WHOI senior scientist Bob Weller, produced reports called “blue covers” that summarized the data and graphs these new computers generated. McKee went on to work for WHOI senior scientist Phil Richardson on drifter buoy and ship-drift data, and later, with WHOI senior scientist Bob Pickart on Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) data. Along the way, she learned programming languages like MATLAB to keep up with the pace of progress.

By the early 90s, the changing demands of work and family life left little time for outside activities. At least three of the original "data dollies" went on to receive the prestigious Linda Morse-Porteous award, granted each year to a female technician who exemplifies leadership, dedication to research, and involvement in the WHOI community. But the camaraderie the women shared during their time in the data processing pool lasts to this day.

“We made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun with it, but we also realized that we needed to be more than a pool of interchangeable data dollies in the hallway,” says McKee. “The work evolved, and we did too.”