Interview with the Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2014: Wendy Hall

Wendy Hall, who has been crowned the Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2014, says gender equality is not just a women’s issue

Solving the gender imbalance in the IT sector is not just an issue for women to sort out, but men too, according to Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, who has been named Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2014.

Now in its third year, the Computer Weekly Most Influential Women in UK IT awards focus on role models and discuss the vital part that female IT leaders will play in making a difference to the future of IT.

Hall was unveiled as the Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2014 at an event in London on 3 July, which featured talks from male and female industry experts.

Long list of achievements

Hall topped the list due to her many achievements. She started out by studying undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in mathematics at the University of Southampton. She returned to the university in 1984 to join a newly created computer science group. There her team invented the Microcosm hypermedia system.

In 1994, she was appointed as the university's first female professor of engineering. She then served as head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science from 2002 to 2007. 

In 2000, she was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list, in addition to becoming a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng).

Along with Tim Berners-Lee, Nigel Shadbolt and Daniel Weitzner, she founded the Web Science Research Initiative, which was launched in 2006.

She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2009 New Year's Honours.

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This year, she was invited to join the Global Commission on Internet Governance, an international effort to determine how to keep the internet free and open to all. 

She also launched the Institute of Web Science, a major research initiative to understand the effect the web has on society, culture and the economy. 

Hall sits on numerous committees and advises various government bodies.

Giving women the recognition they deserve

Speaking to Computer Weekly about her win, Hall says: “I feel very strongly that we must always resist this being thought of as a women's issue and expecting women to sort it out. Every time a woman in IT is asked to sit on a committee about it or make a presentation at a school as a role model, her male peers are getting on with their careers.

“We still see too many panels and committees and lists of keynote speakers at IT conferences that are all male. And too often when I speak about the women in IT issue I find myself speaking to an all-female audience. We have to change this. It's time for men to start making sacrifices too, and when they are asked to speak at a conference, or be on a panel or a committee, to refuse to do it if is an all-male line-up. No tokenism though, please.”

Hall says she is “flattered” to be included in a list of “such amazing women”, let alone to find herself topping the list of 25. “There are very few academics on the list and it's wonderful to know that the work I'm doing is having an influence outside the world of academia,” she adds.

According to Hall, lists such as the Top 25 Most Influential Women in IT are important in highlighting the women who are working in the IT industry.

“I have spoken publicly about how much I support Computer Weekly's effort in this area. Before the creation of the list, very few women made it to the overall list of the most influential people in UK IT," she says.

“Now that list has a very healthy number of women on it each year and really helps to highlight the role women play in IT in the UK.”

Attracting women into IT

On what should be done to encourage more females into IT careers, Hall says she has been trying to encourage more women to consider careers in IT and computing for 30 years.

“The IT industry needs to show that it is fully inclusive, provides routes to very exciting careers that are not all about geeks in basements, and is an industry that is increasingly significant to the well-being of the planet in the broadest sense," she says. 

The IT industry needs to show that it is fully inclusive

Wendy Hall, Most Influential Woman in UK IT 2014

"But on its own that it is not enough. This is a deeply cultural issue. Teenagers are influenced more by their families and peer groups than anyone else when making decisions about future careers. Changing deeply routed cultural opinions about careers in IT requires all the different stakeholders – including industry, government, the media and education – to work together in a co-ordinated and sustained way.” 

IT lagging behind on gender equality

When Hall started out as a computer science 30 years ago the world was very different. She says it has changed hugely in terms of gender equality, but “is worryingly stuck in a rut”.

“Things don't seem to be getting better, and set in the context of the strides forward women are making in other sectors of the world of work – medicine, law and business generally, to name a few – this is indefensible for an industry that is so important to all our futures,” she adds.

Hall concludes with some advice on how the industry could start to move forward: “We have to work together to change things, and reflect on the lessons of the past so we don't make the same mistakes all over again. 

“A recent worrying trend is the way women are treated on the internet. This is something that the IT industry needs to worry about, and not leave to others to try to resolve, because it will only increase the perception that IT is a world that only men are happy to inhabit.”

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