Where are all the women in computer science?

Without them, Britain will fall behind.

We need a more level playing field to encourage greater gender diversity in computer science. Photograph: Twechie on Flickr, via Creative Commons

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