March 2010 Archives

Will the Institute of Web Science get more women into technology?

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Dame Wendy Hall called the current situation surrounding women in technology "depressing" during an interview on Friday, saying the situation over the last 20 years has probably got worse.

Despite the value of a positive spin on things demonstrated by Ada Lovelace day last week, the drop in numbers over the last two decades is undeniable. While I do agree that positivity is part of the solution, focussing on the problems doesn't necessarily have to detract or depress the huge achievements of many women already working in the sector.

Wendy Hall, a professor at the University of Southampton, is not alone in finding the situation frustrating, but she is one of a few very senior women in UK computer science who regularly speaks out about it.

She hopes that the new Institute of Web Science - which received £30m of government funding last week - will do something to help reverse the decline.

Web science is a relatively new discipline which studies and researches the impact the web has on society and the economy. It is interdisciplinary, with the study of economics and social behaviour being as important as the technology underpinning it, and it doesn't just look at how technology impacts society, but how society impacts the direction of technology development. Social networking is a good example - computer scientists created the tools, but it was the users of those tools that shaped it and turned it into the phenomenon it is.
No technology has revolutionised the way we live in the way the web has, and the study of how it will continue to do so needs all kinds of skills in addition to the technical side. It needs people who are interested in the wider world and how it interacts with technology, and people who can tap into a perceived need and create a business around it. 

The potential importance of this discipline is that it's helping to push technology up the political agenda, and might just start the process of cultural change that's needed to get people to see the subject in a new light. Gordon Brown spoke about the importance of the digital economy last week, and Wendy Hall says Southampton University has seen a surge in interest in courses since then.

Changing the image is perhaps the most crucial part of getting women to be involved. If they want to study technology-related subjects, they will - they just need to be interested. It remains to be seen whether web science really will get people to see technology in a new light, but it certainly has the potential to capture people's imagination.

SXSW 2010: What Guys are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech

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When I attended SXSW (you can read more about it over at Computer Wekly's news blog) my interest was piqued by one panel in particular: What Guys are Doing to Get More Girls in Tech.

It was pitched as an opportunity to "learn about successful strategies and proactive approaches for supporting women you work with and participate in community with."

Kaliya Hamlin chaired the panel, which featured BT's VP of web services, Kevin Marks; Canadian collaboration expert David Eaves; Brandon Sheats, co-founder of tenpeach and WordCamp Atlanta 2010; and Obie Fernandez, co-founder of web design and development group Hashrocket.

The unifying theme is their work to encourage diversity across corporate culture and developer and user communities which remain largely male and white.

Marks summed up his experience of making tech more welcoming to women with a word of advice to men: Lesson one is for men to treat their female colleagues as human beings rather than sexual objects.

You'd think this was a no-brainer, but there remain those who think "working late on a presentation" is a euphemistic come-on. Marks related the story of a female colleague returning to a meeting room to find her male co-worker stark naked.

Fernandez related the shock! horror! anecdote of a large consulting company with progressive leadership working hard to try to hire more women for tech jobs... an ambition which then fell at the final hurdle as those responsible for the hiring proceeded to show bias to a candidate's attractiveness rather than technical competence.

The clear message to emerge was that men in tech could do worse than to conduct a bit of self-analysis to see how they could be better allies to women in tech. As Marks said somewhat tongue-in-cheek: "What we need to do is make the tech world better for mediocre women in tech - because god knows it's full of mediocre men!"

A few great posts for Ada Lovelace Day

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Here's a selection of a few great posts for Ada Lovelace Day - please leave a comment or email if I've missed anything brilliant.
Elsa Bartley, a web designer and developer, blogged on Robin Hunicke, a games designer and producer. Elsa says in her blog, "While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application."
Hannah Dee is a researcher and deputy chair of the British Computer Society's Women's Forum. She blogged about Julie Greensmith who's a computing lecturer at Nottingham University. She says of Julie, "She's doing research into artificial immune systems and into the nature of thrill. This second research direction has her covering people in electrodes, pointing cameras at them, and sticking them on roller coasters. All in the name of science."
Terence Eden, who works at Vodaphone, blogged about Rachel Armstrong, who spans the science and technology fields and is a TED fellow. She's currently researching a chemical that could stop Venice from sinking (blimey).
IT professional Heather Bodman wrote about Lynn Langit, the Developer Evangelist for Microsoft. Heather writes, "Before joining Microsoft as a Developer Evangelist, Langit ran her own company, developing .NET applications and other Microsoft solutions in her capacity as Lead Architect. As a Developer Evangelist, Langit reaches out to the software development community in Southern California, both in person at talks and online through her blog, Contagious Curiosity."
Mark Kobayashi-Hillary nominated Dame Wendy Hall, one of the best known names in computer science. For a list of her achievements read his post, but what's really interesting about her is that, "She is a true technology visionary. She was using a version of what we know as the web, about 15 years before the rest of us caught up, and now she is leading international research efforts into the semantic web, the next generation internet."
Alice Taylor wrote about "videogames genius" Margaret Robinson. "If you ask Margaret what she does, she often hesitates slightly, because she does so much within this huge field, and all of it so well: from games design itself, through to story architecture, troubleshooting, team design, strategy, business analysis, conference organising... you name it."
And Cate Sevilla over on Bitchbuzz highlighted a handful of tech women worth knowing about, including Hermione Way, Twestival's Amanda Rose, and TechCrunch writer Sarah Lacy.
So there were some great posts (including Katy Bairstow who wrote for us) on really impressive women - it was nice to see Twitter so busy with blogs like these.


Ada Lovelace day: time to highlight achievements

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This is a guest post by Katy Bairstow. Katy has worked in the IT industry for over a decade for companies like EDS. She currently works as a freelance web designer and developer and blogs infrequently at


Once again it's Ada Lovelace day, when people across the globe tip their hats to the daughter of Lord Byron who, in the 1840s, became the world's first computer programmer. I'm not going to write about Ada though, or about Grace Hopper, Edith Clarke, Erna Hoover or Sophie Wilson (if you don't know the names, look them up, you owe them a lot).

Back in the nineties, when I began my tech career, a female technologist was unusual and for some people the arrival of a female support technician at their desk-side came as a nasty shock. Today we make up about a fifth of the IT workforce and no one gasps in surprise when you tell them what you do for a living.

So I want to talk about the women in technology today, the women who are out there, right now. The developers, sysadmins, network architects and support techs. They are school leavers, university graduates, established technologists, managers and board members. They are tomboys and girly-girls, fashionistas and fashionphobes. There's not a stereotype in the world than can encompass them all, they know their stuff and if we want to encourage girls to consider a tech career, they are the people we should be celebrating.

Often articles that decry the low percentage of women in tech are impressively self-defeating. The industry is presented as a boys club, closed, antagonistic, unwelcoming. Women who want to work in the IT sector face huge obstacles, they tell us. This is hardly going to encourage those with an interest to pursue a tech career, nor in my experience is it even accurate. Never, even in the early days, have I been met with anything but a warm welcome from male colleagues, and have never been rejected for a tech job on the basis of my gender. I would imagine that most women currently working in the industry would say something similar. If it was that bad an industry to work in, we wouldn't stay in it.

I'm not claiming that there are no gender issues within IT, the pay-gap for instance continues to be a problem (hot tip, go into interviews knowing the average market salary for the position, that's your starting point for negotiation.) There will be some discrimination in hiring and promotion too, no doubt, but presenting the IT industry as a misogynistic dinosaur is self-defeating and highly dismissive of over 200,000 everyday tech heroines who are an essential part of the industry.


Top ten women in technology

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This is a great V3 article featuring female technology researchers. It highlights people who have had a profound impact in computer science and the wider technology industry and shows just how huge womens' contribution to technology has been. The only problem with this story is it's very long, and printed as an exchange between Iain Thomson and Shaun Nichols so not the easiest thing to read quickly. Here's a shortened version of their top ten list - to find out more just read their story:

Special mention to: Meg Whitman of eBay, and Caterina Fake of Flickr.

10: Mena Trot: Set up Six Apart with her husband and created the tools to enable the blogging revolution to take off with blogging tools TypePad and and Moveable Type. Both systems, while also used by big publishing companies, turned blogging from something you needed a lot of expertise to do to something everyone can do.

9: Hedy Lamarr: Her achievements aren't as great as the others on the list apparently, but she earned her place on it by being a glamourous actress at the same time as working on a side project that "more or less laid the foundations for wireless ethernet, mobile broadband and synthesised music markets." Iain Thomson says in the article, "I feel she deserves the place for showing a generation of women that science and glamour are not incompatible. All too often I fear young women are turned off science because it's seen as unfeminine." I get what he's trying to say here, but I personally think that knowing about any of these women would have piqued my interest in computer science when I was younger. What matters is that they're female and brilliant, not what they look like.

8: Danielle Bunten Berry: One of the world's greatest computer games designers and creator of M.U.L.E. This stands for multiple use labour element, and it was the first multi-player game, allowing people to play the same game on different consoles. The Sims is dedicated to her.

7: Mitchell Baker: The Mozilla president who guided the company from being a "defunct browser technology to the biggest threat to Microsoft this side of Google." Her skills are on the legal side of technology, but she's been instrumental in pushing forward the development of open source technology. Iain Thomson says, "Open source is hated by much of the commercial software industry, which has used any means possible to undermine its principles and subvert its core structure. Baker has been its guardian angel."

6: Barbara Liskov: The first woman in the US to be awarded a PhD in Computer Science, in 1968 from Stanford University. She has invented two key computer languages, CLU and Argus, as well as the Venus operating system and the Thor object-orientated database system. She still teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

5: Sophie Wilson: Wilson and her associates outlined the design of the ARM chip, a low power processor that runs most mobile handsets today - including the Apple iPhone and iPad.

4: Mary Lou Jepsen: Jepson has contributed to a number of fields. First, her work in optics had an important impact on display technology, notably in HDTV and projects. She then moved onto holographic systems, designing and building the world's first holographic video system at the MIT Media Lab in 1989. She was also chief technology officer of the One Laptop Per Child project, where she invented a display that could be used in sunlight and was also behind the power management system that made the laptop energy efficiency.

3: Frances Allen: The first woman to win the Turing Award, Shaun Nichols says of her: "Allen began work with IBM in 1957 and carried on a career that would last until 2002. In that time she would amass a body of work that would lend her legendary status in the software development and high-performance computing fields, particularly in the development of programming languages and code compilers."

2: Ada Lovevlace: I can't really put it better than Iain Thomson, who says, "She was the world's first computer programmer, which is remarkable in itself, but even more so considering she was a woman in a time when most of her sex were considered only useful for producing children, preferably male ones." She studied Charles Babbage's mechanical computer and worked out how to make it work in ways beyond basic number crunching.

1: Grace Hopper: She was a Rear Admiral; she had a US Navy Destroyer named after her; she coined the term "computer bug" and her work is behind most software code that dictates application development today. You couldn't make her up. To find out more about all these women you can read the full article, linked to above.

Great female IT role models: Sheetal Mehta

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Sheetal Mehta is founder of Shanti Microfinance, which is a social enterprise charity that provides access to technology and capital for entrepreneurs in slums and villages in Gujarat, India.

She's a former director of venture capital relations at Microsoft, and she's currently the UK deal maker for the UK Trade and Investment's Global Entrepreneur Programme. In this role, she helps innovative technology start-ups make the UK their base.

This month's Open Soho event tonight is doubling up as an event for Shanti Microfinance. The charity loans money to men, women and families (many microfinance organisations target women specifically) in the slums and villages of India. You can find more information on their website, and we hope to feature more of Sheetal's work on here. You can follow her on Twitter @sheetalmmehta.

Better pay and recognition

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Not only is today Internation Women's Day, it's also the fifth birthday of, so we asked the women in our network what their 'birthday wish' for women in IT would be. The top answers were: a closing of the gender pay gap, more respect and more support in the workplace from both employers and fellow employees.

One respondent said "[I wish] that people would assume [women in IT] have interesting, innovative and strategic thinking without them having to work so hard to constantly establish credibility". Another said she wished that women would "support each other rather than compete".

The needs of working mums were also addressed with calls for women to be openly recognised as doing a great job even if in part-time work, as well as for more workplace benefits options surrounding things like childcare. Other wishes were for more role models for women in IT, more women in senior IT positions and for women to trust their own skills and abilities more.

As one respondent pointed out, it has been 40 years since the Equal Pay Act and although we've made progress we still haven't closed the gender pay gap, so that's definitely a big hope for the future. These results show that we still have a way to go until women are on a par with men in the IT world but what's great is that these 'wishes' are realistic ones that are within our reach. Since womenintechnology was established five years ago women have made great advances in the sector. We're looking forward to the next five years and what will happen next!

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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