Every few years, the following photograph of Margaret Hamilton makes the rounds in social media. This particular image's popularity is not surprising; it's a great shot of Hamilton, who was NASA's lead developer for Apollo program, standing next to the stack of computer printouts for the software that told the Apollo Guidance Computer what to do and when to do it, which eventually helped astronauts land on the moon.
A friend recently posted this image to social media, and upon seeing it, someone else responded, "That is incredible. Why haven't I ever heard of her before?"
My friend's reply was simple: "Because men."
I completely understood my friend's point. There are far too many times when women are overlooked in their respective fields. But I was annoyed and frustrated by my friend's two-word reply, because there are times when gender has nothing to do with whether someone's accomplishments are publicly recognized. In this specific instance, Hamilton's relative obscurity wasn't due to misogyny. Developers like Margaret Hamilton, Grace Hopper, Jean E. Sammet, and Frances Allen are pioneers in their respective contributions to computer science and software engineering, but the real reason why people haven't heard of them is because: they're computer scientists, and no one cares about computer scientists, except for other computer scientists.
In some fields, men are easy targets for a good round of bashing where "popularity" or "fame" are concerned, but when an entire career field isn't "popular," then EVERYONE who works in that field remains obscure. As history shows, Hamilton (and Hopper, and Sammet, and Allen) earned a host of accolades, but most people haven't heard of them because we use their work without giving a second thought where it came from. (Which, by the way, is true of all engineering fields, but I digress.) I challenge anyone to name a single engineer - man or woman - who helped to produce the iPhone, which is (for better or worse) one of the most civilization-altering inventions in history. Oh, sure - everyone can name Steve Jobs, because he owned the company. But Steve Jobs never "made" anything; millions of unnamed engineers - both men and women - are responsible for the iPhone, the iMac, Windows, Google, Microsoft Office, etc.
Here's another example: I just watched the new "Thor" movie, and Taika Waititi's name is everywhere during the credits because he co-wrote and directed the movie; but most people probably haven't heard of his co-writer, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, because "men." (Hollywood has always been and continues to remain misogynistic, but once again I digress.) However, did anyone bother to pay attention when the credits listed hundreds of people who worked on SFX/CGI for the movie? Nope - we enjoyed their work, but the computer scientists and digital artists who contributed to every scene in that movie remain unknown to anyone outside of their field.
Looping this back to the original subject of NASA and whether they slighted Margaret Hamilton, can anyone name any of the other members of her software development team? If the entire reason some people haven't heard of her was "because men," then I would assume that people could name some of the men who were on her team because they would have received credit for her work. But no, people can't name any of them, either. And why is that? Because - engineers.
How about any of the men and women who designed the Apollo space capsule? Or the Lunar Rover? Or the space suits? Or the propulsion systems? Or the communication systems? Or anyone involved in Skylab? Or the Space Shuttle? Or the Mars probes? Once again, people can't name a single one of those people. And why is that? Because "engineers."
NASA isn't slighting anyone. On the contrary, NASA hires brilliant minds - both men and women - who remain unknown to the general public because they chose extremely technical career fields that lead to obscurity within the community, and societal anonymity doesn't care about gender when it comes to scientific ignorance...