I’ve just come back from seeing Hidden Figures. My brain is on fire.
The film tells the story of the first Computers – black women! – who performed the calculations that enabled the US to send men into space. Who not only performed those calculations, but invented them. Who solved fiendishly difficult problems that had never been solved before. It is a masterpiece of story telling, of film making, and of setting history right. Because these are stories we cannot tell often enough.
Despite the realities of history, we have allowed that story to be rewritten. We continue to believe a story that says that the colour of your skin, and the number of your X chromosomes, dictates what you can and can’t do. What you are, and aren’t, good at.
We have allowed the history of computing to become overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly false. We have allowed the history of space to become the history of a few white men.
Hidden Figures shocked me in its all-too-accurate depiction of overt racism and sexism – and it didn’t even deal much with the violence, or the hatred. It made me realise how far we have come. But it also made me realise how far we still have to go.
We still have politicians telling us that your worth is dictated by your race. Or your religion. Or your clothes.
We still have teachers telling girls that computing isn’t really for them. That maths isn’t for them. That science is for boys. Most of them don’t say it outright now. But in a hundred tiny ways, girls are steered away from the “hard stuff”. In the questions directed to the boys, because the girls might not know the answer. In the career suggestions. In the level of support and encouragement.
But we know that women were central in the start of computing. From Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper. From Mary Johnson to Anita Borg. Women have figured in computing every step of the way – and they have frequently had to overcome extreme obstacles to do so, while all white men had to do was pick up the opportunities strewn at their feet.
I still get shocked looks when I tell people I am a Computer Scientist. A PhD in Computer Science is still something women aren’t expected to have. And the numbers of women going into technical fields remain horrifically low, because we are constantly told it’s not really our kind of thing. And too many of us believe it.
So go see Hidden Figures. Take your kids. Take your students. Take your friends. And tell your students, your children, and everyone you meet, that the colour of their skin and the arrangement of their chromosomes tells them ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about who they are and what they can become.
The sky isn’t the limit anymore. We’re aiming for the stars.