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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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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