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

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.