Katherine Johnson, a Mathematician doing a job known as being a “computer” for NASA in the movie “Hidden Figures” died today at the age of 101. She started out at a time where being such a human computer was looked about as lowly clerical work fit for women. It was one of the few outlets for a woman of intelligence. Computer programming and computer science for the up coming digital computers which she also worked on were looked at the same way. Media reporting on computer programming as being particularly suited to women. Now, in this day and age, that might seem like breaking a barrier. The truth is far more profound. Katherine Johnson and those like her showed a priori that discriminating against women and/or people of color in that field is unwarranted. Things which the James Damore’s of today look at and think of as simply being the product of the nature of women or minorities are revealed as in fact being products of society based on the tiniest grain of fact.
Yes, men and women have different brains. Studies have proven this. (Studies done which showed transsexual men and women have brains more like the gender we think we are.) No that does not then imply that men or women are very different in intelligence. That one gender is more systematic and logical than the other.
Yes, the races are different. No this does not mean that one race has much higher g, general intelligence, than the others. Not to be confused with IQ which tries to measure g and doesn’t do a good job.
What Really Changed.
The microcomputer changed computing from a team effort done by professional people in mixed working environments of business, government and academia into something that could be done in one’s home. Even in a business a worker can be on a personal computer working in their cubicle or office and never need to talk directly to someone across the way from them. Even in such a place where there are no cubicle walls if a worker wants, they could pe totally engrossed in their computer.
This lead over the years since the early 1980’s to 30 years of people thinking that to use a computer is something done by anti-social geeks and nerds. Using a definition of “nerd” or “geek” that would exclude women, at least, women who meet the beauty standards. That definition of nerd or geek barely included black people until Steve Urkel came along. Even then as Michael Richards observed Kramer, his character on Seinfeld, was as big of a nerd as Urkel. The only difference being that Kramer got to have sex (personal recollection ... I think he said that on Letterman.)
So, it became the idea that to be good with computers one had to be a geeky, nerdy, anti-social, autistic, maybe “incel”, white, male. One could as Damore does call themselves objective and think this is true. The whole culture of coding was changed from the advent of the microcomputer to be something that was done in a mancave. That is the difficulty, Damore is right, but only within a paradigm that is wrong. A paradigm that makes it seem like changing the culture of IT is making a special effort to make it more friendly to women and people of color.
Katherine Johnson faced steep barriers but not the one we know when it comes to women in computer science. She did something more profound. Along with many other women she showed that this glass ceiling had no reason to exist. The proof it was without logical reason was already in hand.
People with stories like hers stand as a reminder of what is possible, and that progress is not inevitable.
Too Long Didn't Read. People got the idea that to be into computers you had to be like the guys in the movie WarGames.