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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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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.