Ada Lovelace invented the idea of software in 1843 at the age of 28 when working with Charles Babbage on his Analytical engine. The first pioneer in computing was a woman and we have had many more female computing pioneers since then: the women at Bletchley Park; Dina St Johnston who set up the UK’s first software house in 1959; Dame Stephanie Shirley who’s company employed women, mainly working from home in the 1960s, training them to write software including the Concorde black box flight recorder; and Karen Spark Jones, a pioneer in search algorithms who’s quote “Computing is too important to be left to men” is the title of this piece. And that’s just in the UK, there are many women tech pioneers across the globe.
I first realised that I needed to get involved in supporting and raising the profile of women in tech during my PhD in software engineering in the 1990s. I found out that talking to men at conferences about my research could be misconstrued which led to me not finding tech conferences an enjoyable experience. Attending a women in science conference some months later I was amazed to find that I could enjoy conferences, meet some great people and have interesting conversations. Being in the majority makes life so much easier. Being in a minority can make something that seems simple difficult.
I set up BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in computing in 1998 as a result of my experiences. The idea being to provide a space for women to discuss the topics we cared about in technology with other women. I’m very proud of the fact that BCSWomen still provides a women only space where anything and everything related to technology is discussed. BCSWomen has supported hundreds of women over the last 19 years.
I’m so delighted BCS continues to take a lead in investigating, researching and publishing data around the situation not just for gender but diversity in general in our industry. We need a more diverse industry so that we can create better products and services for everyone. Take the example of the automated point of sale machines in supermarkets. I’m sure we have all experienced the “unexpected item in the bagging area” moment of frustration. Do you think the team that developed those automated POS machines was diverse? Do you think there were people on the team that shopped regularly in a supermarket? I’m guessing not.
Diversity is important for everyone. Only when we have diverse teams, diverse workforces, diverse experiences contributing to creating diverse products and services will we be creating products and services that are fit for all of us. Diversity brings strength.
Technology is such an exciting area to be in. Working in the tech industry we understand the world and the opportunities around us in a way that many others are as yet able to see without our help. We owe it to everyone else to take a lead in this area, so that they can follow.
You could say that this report paints a dismal picture in terms of diversity and women in tech, we are nowhere near 50/50 male to female in the industry. But I believe that we are at a tipping point of a revolution in technology and also in awareness of the importance of diversity. I’ve seen massive change over the last few years in attitudes towards diversity in tech, from being asked when setting up BCSWomen in 1997: “Why are you ghettoising yourself?”
I now regularly get asked: “How can we encourage more women to work in our tech department?”
Things are changing and this report gives us the data we need to measure and evaluate progress highlighting areas of concern and areas of success that we can celebrate along the way.
Let’s take our lead from this report and use it to create a a more diverse, more successful tech industry in the UK. We owe it to Ada, Dina, Dame Stephanie, Karen and everyone who has worked hard to make the UK tech industry what it is today.
Dr. Sue Black OBE FBCS
BCS report: Diversity in IT 2017