Computer scientist Dr Sue Black OBE worked hard to get to the top of her profession. She’s also worked tirelessly to bring other women up with her and honour those who went before. Suzi Gage exchanged some coded messages with her.
If, like me, you’re a fan of codes and codebreaking, you may have heard of Bletchley Park. The stately home, located in leafy Buckinghamshire, was where a great many fantastic minds worked tirelessly and in complete secrecy, cracking coded messages intercepted from the Nazis during WWII, and where the birth of modern computing occurred.
Although when we think of Bletchley we probably think of Alan Turing, Dilly Knox or even Tommy Flowers, Bletchley’s staff were predominantly women.
You might not know how close the park came to being lost to the ravages of time and neglect and the battle fought on social media to save it. Dr Sue Black OBE was integral in that battle.
The effort she put in to raise the profile of the park, highlight the very real danger it was under of closing and successfully save the park, allowing it to remain a museum and guaranteeing its status as a heritage site, is astounding.
Dr Black was an early adopter of Twitter and saw its potential to mobilise crowds in support of the campaign. And her book documenting the struggles, Saving Bletchley Park, was itself crowdfunded. In fact at the time of publishing it was the fastest ever such campaign to reach its target, taking less than five days to secure the money needed for publication.
How did you become a computer scientist?
Maths was always my favourite subject at school. My mother died when I was 12; my dad remarried and my family became a bit dysfunctional, so I ended up leaving home at 16 with five O-Levels. I married at 20, had three children by 23, and then, unfortunately, my marriage ended.
As a single parent with three small children I needed to earn money to look after my family and that meant getting more than a minimum wage job, so I took a maths evening class at the local college, which qualified me to apply to go to university.
“The Government debated a petition to save Bletchley, and concluded that they had no money to spend on it. Baroness Trumpington, who herself used to work at Bletchley, supported the decision, and that was pretty crushing.”
I went to London South Bank as it was the nearest to where we lived in Brixton. I had to take my children to nursery and school before classes and pick them up at 3.15pm every day.
I wanted to study maths and computing, but London South Bank only offered maths OR computing. I decided that computing was the future, so settled on a computing studies degree. After my degree I stayed on at LSBU and did a PhD in software engineering.
Why Bletchley Park? What motivated you to get so involved with the project?
As part of my PhD I went to academic conferences. Conference networking was extremely hard at male-dominated computing conferences. I assumed that it was just that I found it hard to network and had a bad early experience, which really put me off attempting to chat to other delegates.
But after attending a Women in Science conference, I realised that maybe it was the male-dominated nature of computing conferences that was challenging. I had a great time chatting to women and didn’t find it awkward or nerve-wracking. So after that experience I set up the UK’s first online network for women in computing in London, BCSWomen, with the British Computing Society in 1998.
It was representing that group that first took me to Bletchley. I knew a bit about it, but assumed the people who’d worked there during the war were all men. I was blown away when I found out that more than half the people who’d worked there had been women and that more than 10,000 people worked there. Then when I found out it was severely lacking in funds and risking closure, I knew I had to help.
What was the most difficult challenge you faced during the campaign to save the park?
There were loads of challenges. The most disheartening moment was probably when the Government debated a petition to save Bletchley, and concluded that they had no money to spend on it. Baroness Trumpington, who herself used to work at Bletchley, supported the decision, and that was pretty crushing. But, we kept going.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
I’ve been given so much advice over the years, it’s hard to remember who said what. As a woman, though, I’d say ‘trust your gut instinct’. Women are brought up to listen to others and it’s something I’ve had to train myself out of doing, and I still do it too much – going along with things even though they don’t feel right.
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Suzi Gage is a postdoctoral researcher at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit in Bristol and a science blogger for the Guardian. In her spare time she has a mild obsession with synthesisers. Author photo: The Post.