An interview with Dr Sue Black OBE
What made you decide to start the campaign to save Bletchley Park?
I’d set up the first online network for women in tech in the UK, BCSWomen and we had a meeting in 2003 at Bletchley Park. That was the beginning of my journey, but all I knew about the place then was that the ‘codebreakers’ worked there. I had this idea of 50 old blokes working there wearing tweed jackets and doing the Times crossword. But I bumped into these guys doing a rebuild of, Turing’s Bombe codebreaking machine – (remember Christopher in The Imitation Game). They told me there were 10,000 people working there during the war and 50% of those were women. I left that day thinking I needed to do something to capture the stories of the women who worked there so they would not be lost. That became the “Women of Station X” project.
At the project launch in 2007, the CEO of Bletchley Park told us all that he was worried Bletchley Park would have to close because of the impact of swine flu on their ticket sales and a general lack of funding. I was shocked. Soon after that I did a proper tour of Bletchley Park with a veteran who told us 11 million people were dying each year during WWII and that the work at Bletchley Park was thought to have shortened the war by 2 years, so 22 million people were saved as a result. And it was also said to be the birthplace of computing. So that whole narrative came together, computing, women, all those lives saved, and I just thought I had to do something. Because Bletchley Park had all been so secret, nobody knew what had happened there and how important it was.
What or who helped you with the campaign?
I was the new head of a computer science department at the University of Westminster and just finding my feet, but I contacted all the professors and heads of computing at universities across the UK. I asked everyone to sign a “save Bletchley Park” petition on the Number 10 website and many of the professors signed it which was wonderful. A colleague and I drafted a letter to the Times and got lots of news coverage on the BBC. The BBC Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones did a big piece on what we were doing. I got emails from all over the world. But the Government still didn’t change their minds and give more money, so then I was a bit stuck as to what to do next but social media came to the rescue.
I started using Twitter which got some more great people involved who knew more about social media and campaigning than me. I took them all up to Bletchley Park so they could see what it was all about and so the Bletchley Park management could see what social media could do. We decided Bletchley Park was the Geek Mecca.
A couple of weeks later I saw a photo on Twitter of Stephen Fry stuck in a lift. I thought “Stephen Fry must be interested in Bletchley Park”. I messaged him asking for help, he tweeted about the campaign and my blog went from 50 hits a day to 8000 that day! I was the most re-tweeted person on Twitter in the world that day! That would never happen now. But there was a lesson right there about how powerful Twitter can be. That really got the message out about how important it was to save Bletchley Park.
How did your family and friends react?
I’m very much a “throw myself into things and make them happen” kind of person. The main person impacted was my partner as I was working full-time and running the campaign. But mobile phones made it easier and we’re both workaholics so it was OK. When I was editing the book about the campaign recently, I was reminded that I took my twin sons on a surprise trip to Bletchley Park for their 23rd birthday! They look happy in the photos, and I know they enjoyed the trip, but looking back I think oh my goodness, even my poor children were dragged along there.
How did your life change going down that path?
My life just went crazy and doing TV interviews, especially live ones, I was scared stiff! But it was good.
What advice do you have for women considering something similar?
Focus on what you’re passionate about if your circumstances allow that. The things you care about most are the ones you’ll be most able to have an impact on.
What other issues are you passionate about and why?
I’m passionate about life. My mum died when I was twelve and I spent a lot of time as a teenager thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and what was important to me. Every day I think, I could be dead tomorrow. Not that I’m scared of dying, but I feel really lucky to be alive.
I hate any kind of inequality so I’m really driven by changing that. I lived in poverty with my three kids for several years so I’m passionate about bringing women out of poverty. I just have to make positive things happen to keep myself sane.
I’m also so excited that I’m living now with all the amazing things that technology enables us to do – even compared to just 10 years ago. I love the way technology can connect us all up, either to random people or people we want to connect with, by breaking down the power structures or just providing the means to enable that.
What do you love most about being the age you are?
I like just being me and not worrying what everyone thinks about me and what I should be doing. When you’re growing up as a woman you get judged on your looks all the time. When I was a young mum, men used to say to me ‘cheer up, cheer up’ as I was walking down the street and then I’d have a conversation with myself worrying whether I should be smiling all the time. Now I don’t worry about how I look other than whether I’m wearing the right thing for an event! I used to think everyone knew better than me about most things, but now I know what needs to happen in the world, and think everyone should think the same way I do! I don’t worry about other people’s negative bullshit anymore.
What do you hate most about being the age you are?
I’ve got less time to live! I’ve got so much I want to do and my time is reducing every day. But I don’t worry about it, I just want to get on out there and make things happen.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
Trust your gut instincts. I always knew my gut instinct was there but I didn’t trust it. Every time I didn’t, I’ve been wrong. I should have trusted my gut.
What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Live your life for yourself not for other people. Because of my personal circumstances I was kind of set free at thirteen. I didn’t have much parental influence so I didn’t have to worry about parental expectations. I left home at sixteen and moved in with my friend’s family. It could have been horrendous but it wasn’t.
Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
Keep going. One thing no one ever told me is that everyone has loads of shit things happen in their life. When I was growing up, it always felt like I was getting all the shit things happening but everyone gets it. So don’t take it personally. What differentiates people is how you deal with difficult situations. You need to just keep going.
Which woman do you most admire and why?
In the UK I really admire Dame Stephanie (Steve) Shirley. She made her own life, set up an organisation that was fifty years ahead of its time, employing women at home writing software. Her whole story is phenomenal and she’s a major UK philanthropist now. She just keeps going. I’ve met her a few times so that’s very cool.
In the US I admire Maya Angelou. I read her work as a single mother living in poverty. She had a very difficult background but she turned it around and was so calm and wise. When you come from a hard background, it can be difficult to not end up unhappy and embittered. I love women who’ve come from adversity, become really successful and then gone on to empower other women.
I like Oprah Winfrey too, how she turned her life around and helps others to transform theirs. Utmost respect to her too.
Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
If there is they don’t tell me! Previously as an academic, people used to think I had a traditional middle class upbringing and that I was from a reasonably well-to-do family. Now that people know me through social media they know that’s not the case!
How can Mutton Club readers find out more about what you do?
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