Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Secret Rosies

This week I have been showing the movie "Top Secret Rosies" to my freshmen students. It’s a wonderful story about some long unsung heroes of both World War II and computing. As introduced on the related web page:

In 1942, when computers were human and women were underestimated, a group of female mathematicians were recruited to complete secret research for the US Army. Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII is a one hour documentary that shares the little known story of the women and technology that helped win the war and usher in the modern computer age.

I show this movie for several reasons. An obvious one is to show how women have long been involved in computing. Their role has been ignored far to often. The students, not surprisingly the girls especially, notice how women were not given full credit for their work at the time. This is a great starting point for conversation. I want my students to understand though that women have and continue to contribute important things to computing even when men are getting most of the attention.

Another, perhaps less obvious, reason is to help students realize how important the software is to the hardware. When I hear students, mostly male this time, talk about the hardware specifications of computers, tablets and cell phones I realize their don’t really appreciate the importance of the software that makes those devices useful. The movie highlights how important the work of these pioneering women was in making the computer actually useful. I also like how they talk about the women debugging the hardware by knowing the complete system so well.

We often talk about Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper when we talk about the history of computing and software. These are important people but there are more women we can talk about and show as examples for all of our students.

Banner for the movie Top Secret Rosies

Related post: Teachers and Role Models in CS Education


Michael S. Kirkpatrick said...

We could play the name game and assemble a list for discussion: Radia Perlman, Barbara Liskov, Shafi Goldwasser, Lynn Conway, Fran Allen, Tal Rabin, Dorothy Denning. But that is the wrong approach, in my view. No matter how we do it, it starts to appear like the exception proves the rule. Let's say someone is assembling a list of the 1000 biggest contributions to CS. Does it really make that much difference if we can show that women made 25 of them instead of just 1 or 2?

There's a more fundamental problem: It ignores the fact that there were countless women who contributed but whose names we don't know. Quick quiz: What excellent computer scientists worked at Bletchley Park during WWII? Besides Alan Turing. We don't know. But that doesn't change the fact that, at one point, there were 10,000 people working at Bletchley, with some estimates that women made up over 80% of that work force. We don't know there names and never will.

Fundamentally, the problem with playing the name game is that it implicitly gives too much ground to historical sexism. In general, we know the names of designers of systems and the leaders of industry more than those who do the actual technical work. That's why Mauchly and Eckert are more famous than Holberton and the other Rosies: they designed the system instead of just programming it. That's why Thomas Edison is so famous, despite the fact that what he actually excelled at was patenting the work of his employees. That's why Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many others are household names.

This is an important point to make because women at the time were actively prevented from taking on these leadership roles. See Sofia Kovaleskaya as an example. She was prevented from enrolling in Russia, so she went to study in Germany. She was only able to do that by faking a marriage so she could get permission to study abroad. Provide me a single example of a male who has ever had to fake a marriage to pursue their education. If we only focus on highlighting certain women's contributions, we ignore the implicit bias and privilege that makes this discussion necessary. See Emmy Noether, one of the most important mathematicians and physicists in history (note that I'm not playing the absurd qualification game of "most important WOMEN mathematicians"). She had to spend 4 years lecturing under David Hilbert's name.

Any person who suggests that women are less capable of excelling in math, CS, or other fields is an idiot and is completely ignorant of history and male privilege.

Alfred C Thompson II said...

One of the things I like about this movie is that is does call attention to how women were marginalized. The girls seem to notice this right away though the boys often need to be hit over the head with it. It is something we talk about in class.

Michael S. Kirkpatrick said...

Yes, I agree that that movie does a good job of addressing the implicit bias of the name game. I was speaking more to the general (misguided) idea that we just need to provide students with specific examples of women's contributions.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. There are so many things I like about the story and the documentary delivery style not to mention the details that I can't even write them all here. Gender equity is a central theme in my classroom discussions. I had forgotten this was out there and you reminded me of its existence. My wife and I just watched it and it's perfect for class!