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Let’s Get More Women in Tech

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It’s no secret that fewer women choose to study computer science (or other STEM subjects) than men. In the UK last year, only of girls chose to study computer science at A Level, which obviously has a knock-on impact at university and in the workplace. Only 24 percent of STEM roles in the UK are held by women, and according to , only 15 percent of computer science graduates were female in 2016/17.

All the statistics make it clear: there are still far too few women in STEM. But what can be done about it? We had a chat with Sue Black, a Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University, to find out what she thought on this topic.

Increasing female participation

Black, who’s been named one of the most influential and inspiring women in computer science, has more than 20 years’ experience in academia and technology to her name, and has also spent the last two decades campaigning for more acknowledgement and support for women in tech.

She’s aiming to up the number of female staff and students at Durham and told us about a recent trip to Los Angeles in which she spoke to representatives from Harvey Mudd College and UCLA, two institutions which have made great strides in increasing the amount of female students.

There, she gained insight into methods which will now be implemented at Durham. She told us: “We’re now going to work on having a module at the beginning of the computer science degree that helps students to see where the theoretical aspects of computing fit into the real world and the ways technology can be applied.

“From October we’ll also be getting lots of external speakers to come in from local companies to talk about what they’re doing in technology, and of course at least half of those speakers will be women, because I think role models are really important.”

Durham, which is currently ranked within the top 300 universities in the world for computer science according to the QS World University Content by Subject 2019, also runs a female students in computer science group, which invites external speakers and allows female students to meet up regularly and bond with each other. As well as offering social support outside of the classroom, the university also offers a scholarship for female computer science students of any nationality: the .  

Making tech less intimidating

Black’s certainly made her mark on the tech world over the years. In 1998, she set up the UK’s first online network for women in tech, , which provides networking opportunities for women in computer science around the world.

Black says she was inspired to set up BSCWomen after attending a Women in Science conference in Brussels. At the event, she realized she loved networking with other women in tech and wanted a way to keep those connections going. She said: “Even if we didn’t meet in person, at least we could now chat online, because it was quite rare to meet up with lots of women at one time in public.

“Whereas, with the group, which had several hundred members straight away, there was a whole group of women who were interested in talking about technology with each other.”

Like many young women, I never considered studying a degree in computer science, feeling it was an incredibly difficult and complicated subject mainly involving coding. But Black says this is part of the problem – there’s a bit of misunderstanding regarding what computer science actually is, and people don’t realize how exciting it can be.

“I’ve always found computer science ridiculously exciting, there are so many opportunities and different jobs in technology. One of the main misconceptions is that it’s all about being a coder. Of course, we need people writing code, but that’s such a small percentage of the computer science jobs out there. There are so many other jobs, for example in cybersecurity, data science, machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

Spreading the word about female role models

One reason often given for the lack of female interest in computer science and technology is the lack of obvious female role models for young women to look up to. However, Black argues the problem isn’t a lack of role models, it’s the fact these women are so often overlooked compared to men in the sector.

She said: “There are loads of women out there who have started companies that have done amazing things in technology, but I’m sure if you ask people on the street about technology pioneers, they’ll still talk about Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.”

She gives Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley as an example. Shirley set up one of the UK’s first software houses, which was responsible for programming Concorde’s black box flight recorder. She wanted to create opportunities for women with children, and predominantly employed women until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made this illegal.

Sue said: “I would argue she’s even more of a pioneer than Bill Gates, because she had women working at home producing top-notch software, before Bill Gates and all the others came along. She’s now one of the UK’s major philanthropists, and yet most people have never heard of her.”

Lifting up the next generation

Entering a traditionally male-dominated environment has plenty of challenges of course, but Black is keen for young women to not be daunted by the idea of being a role model for the next generation of female students.

Instead, she says being a role model should be embraced rather than feared: “Don’t think of it as a burden, think of it as an opportunity. One of the most amazing things that’s happened to me is that I’ve ended up becoming a role model without even realizing that it’s happening.

“Almost every day now I get someone saying to me ‘I heard you speak two years ago and now I’ve done this because you encouraged me and said that you can do it, just go for it.’ So, it’s actually lovely and a great opportunity to be a role model, it’s not a burden at all.”

Black seems poised to become a role model for even more young women, having recently been announced as the Women’s Equality Party’s candidate in next year’s elections for Mayor of London. She said she wants her campaign to highlight how important equality and government support really are, pointing to her own experience of living in a women’s refuge as a single mother of three children when she was 25.

With support from the state, Black was able to go back into education, pursue her current career and build a better life for her children. If women’s refuges, social housing, childcare support and maintenance grants hadn’t been available she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Reflecting on this, she told us: “There are lots of people in situations where you need the state to support you to help you to maximize your potential. And if you don’t have those things, it would stop millions of people from achieving their potential, which in the long term isn’t good for any of us.”

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Sabrina Collier's profile image
Written by Sabrina Collier
The Assistant Editor of TopUniversities.com, Sabrina edits and publishes articles which guide students from around the world on a wide range of topics. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and grew up in Staffordshire, UK. 

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