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Where are all the women in computer science?

Without them, Britain will fall behind.

Power player

I’ve been in Southampton all week, which is unusual for me as I’m so often on a plane or train. This meant I was around when the news broke about the Woman’s Hour Power List. I had an inkling that I had made it, as a researcher from the programme contacted me to ask for some background information. But it was hush-hush until just after midnight on Tuesday morning. I found it hard to believe that I’d been named one of the most powerful women in the UK.

Women only

There are relatively few women in science and engineering and as one of them I’ve long campaigned for a more level playing field to encourage greater gender diversity. I don’t generally like women-only prizes and awards. I want to be in the same competition as the men and have never wanted to be awarded anything other than on merit. But I have always supported and gained a lot of support from women-only networks because I think they help us find our voice.

There are very few women in computer science, even though it is the most modern of science and engineering subjects and is essential to the digital infrastructure on which society now depends.

Game theory

I wrote my first paper about the issue of women in computer science – Where Have All the Girls Gone? – in 1987 with my colleague Gillian Lovegrove. We noted that we had no female students in any of the three years of the computer science degree course at Southampton that year.

In earlier years, up to a third of the students studying computer science at the university had been women. But in the mid-1980s the new personal computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro began to emerge. There was very little you could do on them except program in BASIC or assembly code, or play the limited set of games that was available for them – mainly war games. As a result, they were marketed as toys for boys and we managed to dissuade 50 per cent of the population from working with computers in the space of half a decade. We’ve never recovered from that. The same is true in the US and many other parts of Europe.

Career girls

I was in India in January. There, young girls see computing as a career destination of choice and are so excited about the possibilities of being part of this industry. I was privileged to spend time with some wonderful young women who made up 50 per cent of the computer science class in the college I was visiting. We just dream of such numbers here in the UK. We are looking at a major skills shortage in the IT industry in the near future but over the years we have devalued computing for both boys and girls with the bland and uninspiring ICT curriculum that is taught in schools. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced in January that ICT will be replaced in schools by a computer science curriculum from September this year that will include programming. This is the result of a major campaign by the British Computer Society and others and is a huge step in the right direction – as long as we make every effort to ensure it is as inspirational for girls as it is for boys.

Tweeting cardinals

One of the most significant recent world events was the resignation of the Pope, and it occurred to me that this was one job vacancy where there will be no discussion about whether a woman will get the job. It seems such an anachronism. But it also caught my eye that the cardinals have been specifically told that they can’t tweet during the election conclave. The social networks have penetrated the confines of the Vatican as they have every other part of the world.

I have been involved with the web since its earliest days and my passion these days is studying how the web affects society and how it is evolving as our use of it evolves. We call this new research field “web science” and Southampton is one of the top places in the world to study it. We attract as many women as men into this area, because it’s not just about the technology; the web is a social technical system and understanding what makes people tick is as important as being able to develop a web application.

At Southampton we already have a postgraduate course in it and we’re launching a new undergraduate degree in web science in October. It’s wonderful at last to walk into a classroom and see as many female faces in the audience as male.

Shoppers’ delight

Outside work, my favourite pastime is shopping. Last Christmas the tipping point shifted yet again in favour of internet shopping and away from the high street. Businesses that don’t understand what is happening here will not fare well in the digital future. I remember predicting this back in the early days of the web, as well as the demise of printed newspapers and books. Twenty years ago this was seen as heresy but now it is real.

We’re still only at the beginning. I did wonder if I would find shopping online as much of a pleasure as shopping on the high street or in the mall. I can honestly say that I do. It depends on the context, of course. Walking into a boutique feels special but it’s just as easy to create that experience at home – as long as someone has chilled the wine . . .

Wendy Hall is professor of computer science at the University of Southampton

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.