Our opening session for edUi Conf 2018 was a “fireside chat” with the author of Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly. She’s a researcher who is currently working on the Human Computer Project, which aims to share the stories of women in STEM fields in the 1930s through 1980s. I really enjoyed the conversation because it aligned well with my own research field. I also have not read or seen Hidden Figures yet, so it was neat to be able to process the conversation through my own lens. My department, Learning and Performance Systems, includes workforce education, and I have classes with many WFED students so many of our conversations around class topics relate to historic turns of events that had ripple effects we still feel today.
What I really took away from this conversation is that women were doing math and computation work in an era when we were still fighting for the right to vote. As Shetterly shared in her talk, engineers were assigned a “computer” at the then-NACA, but at the time, “computers” were actually women who sat in rooms sequestered from the rest of the people working there, where they did math and crunched numbers for the engineers. They were also segregated, so there were black computers and white computers. At the time, the job of a computer was viewed as a low status occupation and therefore not well compensated.
Where this really gets interesting is that when early machine computers became more mainstream for businesses, companies began replacing women with these machines. One could say that women were the first people to be automated out of a job! While this wasn’t explicitly mentioned, I would imagine that women of color were probably disproportionately affected by this development. As computing became more high status due to the rise of computer machines, men began to move into the field and pushed women out. As we know today, computer science and technical jobs in general are still viewed as predominantly male fields and in some instances are quite hostile to women. We also know that these fields became incredibly lucrative.
I find it so interesting that we don’t hear this narrative more often, especially because of the known issues surrounding engaging young women and girls in STEM subjects. Perhaps flipped the story by discussing how women were the “first computers” and owned the space before men took over, more young ladies would be interested in pursuing STEM fields, or perhaps more likely to remain engaged in the field because they would not feel like outsiders to it. You’d be amazed at the impact a simple story could have on an impressionable young mind!
Shetterly’s website: http://margotleeshetterly.com/about/