The future of technology

How can we attract more women into science and computing?

How can we attract more women into science and computing? With fewer than 20% of the women in the world working in tech, Dr Sue Black shares her inspirational and unorthodox route to becoming one the top 50 women in tech in Europe and a Professor of Technology at Durham University.

Sue is one of the leading tech personalities in the UK today and has spent the last 20 years campaigning for more recognition for women in computing. She’s also well known for founding the campaign to save Bletchley Park, is an OBE and sits on the Government’s new advisory board for improving digital services.

Sue shares her thoughts on social media and its effect on our lives – particularly on children. She also discusses the role of technology in creating positive social change and engaging people with topics they’re interested in.

Dr Sue Black
British computer scientist, academic and social entrepreneur

Dr Sue Black is a British computer scientist, academic and social entrepreneur. She has been instrumental in saving Bletchley Park, the site of World War Two codebreaking, with her Saving Bletchley Park campaign. Since 2018, she has been Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University.

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The future of technology

How can we attract more women into science and computing?

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The future of technology

How can we attract more women into science and computing?

My background isn’t typical of a Professor of Computer Science. I left home and school at 16 and started working, then got married when I was 20 and had three kids by 23. Unfortunately, my marriage then broke down and I realised that education was the only way I could provide for my family. So I went back into education as a 26-year-old single parent, living on a council estate in Brixton. If I think about how I got from that point to where I am today, it’s really down to pushing your own boundaries and growing your own confidence until eventually, you get there.

Technology should be used to unite society and create a level playing field, which is why I set up a social enterprise - #techmums, which reaches women in disadvantaged areas and helps them to find opportunities. If you’re not connected, you don’t know what’s going on in the world and it’s then hard to make the right decisions for you and your family or to change your circumstances.

Only about 20% of tech is women, which is important in a society in which tech is becoming all-pervasive. If we want products and services that are fit for our futures, then we’ve got to have diverse teams creating them and that change is now starting to happen. It helps too that more corporates are recruiting more women into tech and putting diversity at their core. Those are the ones that will be successful.

We need more opportunities for women to train into tech because there is demand, but these women sometimes don’t have the exact skills needed. Not many companies seem to have programmes to take women with potential and then train them. So I’ve also set up TechUP Women which is about helping women who want to work in tech, but haven’t got the exact qualifications to start. It’s incredible to watch women blossom in front of our eyes.

The great thing about social media is that is allows us to understand more about what’s happening all over the world. People that want to make positive changes can connect with each other to form global communities and try to solve the world’s biggest problems - just think about #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. Social media was instrumental in my campaign to save Bletchley Park, which took off in about 2008 - the early years of twitter.

At the time, I didn’t really know what Bletchley Park was. I went for a walk around the grounds after a meeting and bumped into the people that were building Alan Turing’s bomb machine, which more of less industrialised the code-breaking process. We talked about the history of Bletchley and they told me just how many people used to work there (around 10,000) and that about 8,000 or them were women! And young women at that, roughly aged 18 - 23. I was blown away. I was told about the major codebreaking which happened there and how the work had shortened WW2 by two years, at a time when 11 million people per year were dying. And despite this, Bletchley was teetering on a financial knife-edge and may have to close. I had to do something to save it.

I wrote to The Times, trying to get the heads and professors of computing across the UK to sign a petition to save Bletchley. Lots of them did but we needed more publicity, so I contacted all the journalists I knew, and one of them was Rory Cellan-Jones who got me onto BBC News, the Today Programme and in The Times. But the traditional media route lost steam after that and social media found its role. Using twitter, I contacted the Bletchley community and set up a blog which Stephen Fry then tweeted after I sent him a few messages. After that, things really took off in a way that would never have been possible using traditional media.

I get asked about artificial intelligence (AI), which is basically bits of software making decisions about what you’re doing online. It’s already in the back of a lot of websites - for example, when you buy something and it suggests another product you may like. This type of decision-making is only going to become more prevalent and I think all types of systems will use it eventually. The potentially negative side of AI comes from systems being too biased because of the lack of diversity among the people that are creating them.

The future? Understanding tech and coding will be the equivalent of being able to read. I see video becoming bigger and bigger - YouTube and Instagram stories. My daughter hardly reads, it’s all videos - watching what people are doing and then commenting on it. We’re living in interesting times.

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