Leading computer scientist calls lack of gender balance in tech 'depressing'

Dame Wendy Hall, a professor at Southampton University's computer science department, says the situation surrounding women in technology has got worse over the past 20 years.

Dame Wendy Hall, a professor at Southampton University's computer science department, says the situation surrounding women in technology has got worse over the past 20 years.

Hall is one of the world's leading computer scientists and is part of the group, including Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, working on the new £30m Institute of Web Science, announced in Gordon Brown's digital economy speech and last week's budget.

Hall called the lack of gender balance "depressing". She said, "It just stays the same. I wrote my first paper in 1987 on the lack of women - that's 23 years ago. If anything I would say in this country it's probably got worse. It certainly hasn't got any better."

The computing sector was, she said, more or less gender neutral until the advent of the personal computer. The only thing you could do on early personal computers was "programme or play war games," leading to the machines being marketed as boys' toys.

"Almost overnight," Hall said, "the number of women applying to do computing courses just dropped. And the number of women working in the industry started to fall. We've never recovered really from that culture change." Women now make up about 20% of the UK technology workforce.

Despite a long list of initiatives and groups springing up to help to tackle the issue, nothing has made enough impact to really change it. There may be one ray of hope though, with the increasing political interest in the internet and its potential applications, she said.

Web science institute

Chancellor Alastair Darling announced in last week's budget that £30m would be used to develop an Institute of Web Science, and Hall hoped this new area of computer science would help to attract more people overall, but especially more women.

It will investigate the bridge between computing and social sciences, with researchers working on how the web of the future might impact on society and the economy. The current web has revolutionised the way people work and socialise, and Hall said it was currently unclear how future versions of the web could change things further.

The institute would not be marketed directly at women, but she added they might consider positively targeting women a bit further down the line.

She said, "I hope that if we're thinking about computing from a people point of view, from a socio-technical point of view, we can get more people into the industry and particularly more women. I hope very much that our web science courses will have lots of women on them - I don't think I would have done a computer science course at university and I studied maths, but this is a course I would have done."

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