The ABIE Award for Social Impact recognizes a woman whose work creates positive changes for women, technology, and society. Nominees are acknowledge for using technology to create social change, empower women, and increase their influence. British social activist Dr. Sue Black, OBE, is this year’s Social Impact ABIE Award winner, and will accept her award as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.
Sue is the founder of TechMums, a social enterprise that empowers mothers, their families, and their communities through technology training. She is well known for her high profile “Save Bletchley Park” campaign to preserve and restore the headquarters of Britain’s World War II codebreaking efforts. In 2016, Black was awarded Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) honors for services to technology.
We spoke with Sue recently to talk about the award and the path that brought her here.
What led you to a career in technology?
We didn’t have computing when I was at school. I grew up in the 1960s; I wouldn’t have even known what technology was, back then.
I left school at 16, got married young and then had three kids right away. So it was only really in my mid-20s that I thought about what I wanted to study. But I always loved math at school; it was my favorite subject. I did a math course at night school to get into university. Then I decided that I really wanted to study technology because I realized it was the future. I saw that tech was going to shape everything around us, and I wanted to be part of that.
I didn’t really know what my career would be once I graduated, though. I wanted to be a consultant, but then I realized — because I was a single parent with three small children and no child care outside of school hours — that it just wouldn’t work. Then I thought about teaching and academia. When I finished my degree, I applied to be a math teacher, and I also applied for graduate school. I got both, and I chose to do a Ph.D. and become an academic.
Why was saving Bletchley Park so important for you?
Honestly, I didn’t know much about it at all at the start. I sort of knew that code breakers existed during World War II, and I knew some of them worked at Bletchley Park.
I went up there for a BCSWomen meeting and I ended up bumping into these guys that were rebuilding what ended up being Alan Turing’s Bombe machine. They asked me why I was there, I said something about women in tech, and they said, “Did you know that more than 50 percent of the people who worked at Bletchley Park were women?” I didn’t know any women worked there at all! In my head, I thought they were all old men wearing tweed jackets and smoking pipes.
Then they told me that more than 10,000 people were at Bletchley Park during the war! I was completely blown away; I thought it was 50 old blokes. But it was more than 5,000 women, and that story was just not out there at all, anywhere!
That inspired me to raise some funds for an oral history project to record the memories of the women that worked there. It’s funny, now that the “Hidden Figures” stories are coming out, but at that time — this was like 2003, so that was 14 years ago — it was quite an unusual thing to do. It took me three years to get the funding to record some of the women’s memories. At the launch of that project, the director of Bletchley Park gave a talk and explained that the site was having financial difficulties. I thought, “Well, that’s not right — all these people worked there during the war.”
Around 2008, I took my first proper tour around the site, and found out a lot more about what happened during the war. I learned the codebreaking work there had shortened the war by two years. Now, 11 million people a year were dying during World War II, so it’s actually possible that the people at Bletchley Park saved 22 million lives — how can you disregard something like that? I went away that time from my visit thinking “I’ve got to do something to stop this place from closing.”
As time went on, I found out more and more. As I learned more about Alan Turing, learned more about the computer science contribution to the war effort, I couldn’t stop myself from doing it, really. It was just a complete passion and it kind of took over my life for several years.
I worked with fellow academics to petition the government for funds. And I used my connections with some journalists I’d worked with to get on TV to talk about it. That raised awareness a bit, but it didn’t make enough of an impact to really do anything fundamental. It was only really from using Twitter and realizing that just by putting “Bletchley Park” into a search box on Twitter, I could find everyone in the world who might be interested. I just kept doing that — over and over and over and over again — and eventually got key figures like Stephen Fry involved and just kept going, kept going, kept talking to people, kept tweeting, just kept on it. Every day, I was on Twitter talking to people. Eventually it worked out. It took three years but we did save Bletchley Park.
What are you looking forward to at Grace Hopper Celebration this year?
I know quite a lot of women in tech in the U.S., and I’ve been to various places in the States and chatted to people in tech, but I’ve never been somewhere there’s 18,000 people that are all excited about women in tech at the same time. I’m just ridiculously excited about that. I know there’s lots of women computer science students there, so meeting loads and loads and loads of computer science women, computer science students, is very exciting. I just can’t wait really to have those conversations and hang out with people.
What inspires your work with Techmums?
I’m really passionate about technology and about technology changing work for better. I was getting fed up with the fact that a lot of stuff in the press, a lot of people’s opinions about technology were negative. I started out running workshops, teaching coding and app design to 7-year-old kids, because there was no computing curriculum in primary schools at the time. We’d have the parents come in after the kids had spent their day doing coding and stuff, but the dads would step in and the mums would just hang back and watch. That set me thinking: If we want to get to everybody, we’ve got to empower the mums.
There’s studies done in the UK that show the main positive influencing factors on kids doing well in literacy and numeracy at age 11 are their mum’s education and their home environment. If the mums are positive about technology, then they’ll provide a better start for their kids and that’ll affect the whole family.
I put together a program — basic IT skills, app design, web design, social media, online safety, and coding in Python — and got it accredited by E-skills in the UK. The mums go through the program, they get a certificate, and they get a “I’m a Techmum” t-shirt. At the end, we found that the confidence of the mums going through the program absolutely rockets, their general self-esteem just has a massive change. We had a videographer come in the first week and also the last week to interview the mums. She said when she came in the last week, she couldn’t believe it was the same mums because they were so much more confident than they were in the first week.
Putting a program together focused on disadvantaged mums lets us make a bigger difference in people’s lives. I’m a middle-class mum now, so if I want to do something, I can just do it. I’ve got a Ph.D., I’ve got a network, I’ve got money, I can just go and do stuff. But a mum who left school at 16, has been bringing kids up for 10 or 15 years, is reasonably smart but has just not had opportunities — you can make a massive difference to mums like her. When you make the difference to that mum, it carries on down the generations, and also across their communities.
Also, I’ve always been a strong supporter of women in tech, and I’m really keen to produce lots of strong female tech role models as well. If we can make mums those tech role models, that’s great! I hate the fact the phrase “it’s so easy your mum can do it” and I wanted to completely turn that on its head, show that mums can actually lead the way in tech. I want to get millions of mums empowered through learning stuff like app design, web design, coding, and then going out there and setting up their own business or going back into a vocation, getting a job — whatever they want to do with it — to be role models for other women, men, and their kids. We can change the world, I suppose, by producing these confident mums, role models in tech.
How does it feel to be recognized for this ABIE Award?
I’m really excited and grateful. Social impact is what I really care about, so getting this particular award from AnitaB.org — probably the most well-known women-in-tech organization in the world — that’s a massive thing for me. It is different to everything else that’s come before.
What would you like to see change for women in tech in the next 10 years?
It would be great if we had a level playing field, given all the stuff we’ve seen in the news recently. I’d love it if everyone just accepted that women have the potential to be just as good as men at anything, particularly technology. I wish that everyone would accept that some of us love tech and are good at it, and other people don’t. It’s got nothing to do with gender at all, really. And we need diverse teams if we’re going to make anything happen properly in a good way for everybody.
Things will really start to happen when we don’t have to worry about being a woman in tech anymore. We’ll just be using technology to create a better world.
Hear Sue speak during GHC when she accepts her award at the Wednesday Keynote session on October 4, 2017 from 9 a.m to 10 a.m. in OCCC WA2, or during her panel — Student of Vision, A. Richard Newton, and Social Impact ABIE Award Winners 2017 — on Friday, October 6, 2017, from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in OCCC Room W300.
Thank you to Hackbright Academy, sponsor of the 2017 Social Impact ABIE Award.