We take a look at the computing industry through the eyes of an activist in our autumn Chief Disruptor interview with Sue Black, Tech Evangelist.
During the Second World War, Alan Turing, along with more than 5,000 female pioneers, worked to build the Enigma machine at Bletchley Park. Their work probably shortened the war by two years, saving millions of lives.
Then, the story turns bad. Alan was prosecuted for his homosexuality by the British government and died, probably by suicide. Women became side-lined in the computing professional field. The Bletchley Park site became derelict.
Dr Sue Black OBE is credited with saving the Bletchley site. From her position at the time as Head of Computer Science at the University of Westminster, she marshalled people across the computing establishment, celebrities, and campaigners, to secure the required funding. She is also a passionate campaigner for women in tech, and runs ‘#techmums’, aimed at women wanting to educate themselves.
‘Setting up the BCS women's group in 1998 was my first kind of activism,’ said Sue. ‘I was going to computing conferences and being in the minority…then, a “Women in Science” conference put me in the majority. My experience at that conference was so much more positive. I came back and set up BCS Women, which was the UK's first online network for women in tech in the UK in '98. Running that group was what eventually led me to Bletchley Park.’
Schools are whack
As an educator, I wondered what Sue thought of current tech provision in schools. ‘Unfortunately, what has been taught has basically been how to use Microsoft products,’ said Sue. ‘And it's been that way for more than 20 years because I can remember complaining about it when my older daughter, who is now 34, started her GCSE ICT.’
‘She was all excited about learning some sort of technology, computing at school and then when it came down to it she was learning how to use Word…Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Excel, which is fine, but that's not actually technology. To me that's secretarial skills.’
What syllabus would be better? What’s the syllabus at #techmums?
‘What I wanted to do with that is start with kids, helping them to feel comfortable and confident with technology to start with, and kind of building up from there.’
‘If you've got people coming in that don't know how to use email, then you need to start with that. But then moving on quite quickly to stuff like app design, web design, how to use social media and all different social media platforms, how to stay safe online, a bit of coding…in terms of safety, how to work out whether something is a genuine email or if it's a phishing email. All that kind of stuff, so to help build confidence, really, in using technology in general. And then to work up from there.’
Did she think it was harder for adults?
‘No, I don't think so. Lots of people are worried about looking stupid when it comes to technology. If I'm teaching a class I normally start off by saying something like, "I've got a degree in computing, a PhD in software engineering, I don't know everything to do with technology."’
‘When I started #techmums, I started by teaching seven-year-olds. I thought if I just test my ideas out with kids and the kids can do it, then the adults must be able to do it too.’
‘I was teaching seven-year-olds stuff like app design, coding, using Raspberry Pi, scratch programming and found that they could do it. Then, I got the parents in at the end of the day to have a go. That’s how #techmums started. We got the parents involved at the end of the day, and said, "Your kids are going to show you what they've done and then we want you to have a go as well." And we noticed in general…the dads would kind of step in and have a go and the mums would be much more like, "Oh, please don't ask me to do that."’
‘That kind of started me thinking, well maybe if I'm trying to get everyone to be tech-savvy, which was my main aim, then maybe I should be targeting mums with tech skills. If we can get the mums on board, we can build their confidence, and then get the kids on board too.’
Women in Technology
Why did Sue feel the dads would have a go, and not the mums?
‘That’s our society. If you ask someone to say what a scientist looks like, they are mainly going to talk about a man. It’s part of our culture; the stories we’re told and the stuff that we see.’
‘It is gradually changing, which is amazing, but I still see those types of stereotypes – “men are good at technical stuff, women are good at communication” – and of course that’s much too broad to actually be true for everyone.’
But why technology specifically? Once upon a time, women were locked out of every major field with a few exceptions. Yet today, according to recent graduate admissions data, women dominate some scientific fields, such as veterinary science (78%) and medicine (86%). But men dominate engineering and technology (86%).1
Why have women made progress in one field and not the other?
It’s especially puzzling as, at the outset of computing, (including the Bletchley Park-era) the profession was frequently undertaken by women. It wasn’t until it started to become lucrative that large numbers of professional male developers came in.
‘I think it still breaks down to what women have been encouraged by our culture to do or not do,’ said Sue. ‘I don't quite know why biology is fine for women and physics isn't, but it just seems to be like that. I can remember at school being encouraged not to take chemistry and to do domestic science, which I did, stupidly.’
I was surprised at the soft tenor of sexism Sue described; I had expected her to be more reactionary. I asked if there was anything more unpleasant going on. “Misogyny” is distinct from sexism: it refers to hatred of women, such as outright resentment of their presence in senior positions. Some commenters detected misogyny in the ex-Googler James Damore’s “anti-diversity memo,” which made pseudoscientific claims that women are less technically capable.
‘I find it really hard to say, but I do think that exists in other professions,’ said Sue. ‘It just feels like we all kind of default into these stereotypes and then see anything else as a bad thing.’
‘Obviously, there is a problem in technology; I'm not saying there's not a problem at all, but at the same time I don't think it's only technology…I think Google was the first one to talk about its gender stats. We’ve got regulation here now but [previously] companies have not had to look at this information.’
Sue did not agree that there was a specific and acute prejudice against older women educating themselves in this field. ‘I just think that technology, as an industry, has opened itself up more to kind of looking at itself than other industries.’
However, hostile attitudes to feminism had galvanised Sue in her activism. After she set up the BCS women’s group, she said, ‘I was asked by a friend why was I ghettoising myself for setting up a group for women in tech. That just really shocked me…here I was, thinking I was doing something really nice for lots of people, and he saw it as me creating a ghetto? It kind of opened my eyes to the way that people you think on the surface probably think the same things as you possibly don't.’
Society doesn’t understand tech
The original mission Sue had described was that everyone should be “tech-savvy”; why did she think that was important?
Sue felt there was a general lack of understanding in the public sphere. ‘Most MPs come from a certain subset of our society. One of the things that annoys me is that very few of them are from a science background. It’s single figures, out of however many hundreds of MPs that we've got.’ (There are 650 MPs). ‘You've got people that are making the decisions which are leading the country one way or other on various issues and most of them don't really understand technology.’
‘To me, if you don't have a basic understanding of technology now, then you don't really understand what's going to happen in the future. To govern a country successfully, you've got to understand what's coming up in the future.’
And it wasn’t just MPs who were under-educated. ‘Technology is not represented well in media. Most people working in the media don't understand technology…things happen, and they can see it as a threat, because they don't understand the background to it, and they don’t look for the positive side.’
I wondered whether there was a distinction between criticism of new technologies and criticism of platform companies’ policies; when platform companies have accrued similar power to governments.
‘That's a really good point actually, I mean, I suppose traditionally I would have been talking about the first type, definitely. But the second type, that's something else now, really, isn't it? The whole news through social media, manipulation of the masses.’
‘I just think that in [order to] sway public opinion, in general, I guess people have always told lies.’
‘We've got such massive reach now from organisations like Facebook, it's across the whole world at once rather than in one town or one country even. The potential is so much larger to affect world events, or events around the world, through just one company.’
We haven't been in this situation before. How do we work out what to do about it?
‘I think bringing together people with different points of views, and understandings, and backgrounds, around these kind of situations, to work out what is the best thing and not just jumping to some kind of solution.’
It would be nice: one idea which underpins successful democracies is a sense of public debate, in which competing pitches for a country’s overall political direction are heard. But it’s possible that mechanical questions of how we govern ourselves will be increasingly esoteric, and increasingly removed from the topline of political direction: this will encourage arguments based on identity, not policy. Education, then, is one of the main tools for the upkeep of democracy in the digital age.