Professor Dame Wendy Hall

Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and Dean of the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering

Dame Wendy Hall

I was not always passionate about computing. I started my academic career as a mathematician and hated computing while I was doing my first degree.

It was the 1970’s and computing was all about using punched cards to write FORTRAN programmes. I gave it up as soon as I found out the course was non-examinable! However, my career took a new turn in the 1980’s when I was a lecturer at a college of higher education training the next generation of mathematics teachers. The first personal computers were just hitting the market, and the college had bought a Commodore PET. Because I was a mathematician they asked me to set-up a new computing course. I took the Commodore PET home for the summer vacation and taught myself BASIC.

Over the next year, I became fascinated by how these new machines could be used in education, particularly when it became apparent that we would be able to interact with graphics, photos, audio and even video on computers. I did a part-time masters degree in computer science and took a new job back at the University of Southampton but this time in the Department of Computer Science, and the rest as they say is history.

Within a year or so of my move back to Southampton two things had happened. Firstly, I became very aware of the lack of women interested in computing because we had so few female undergraduate students on our computer science degree. Secondly, I started to experiment with the development of multimedia information systems. I quickly moved on to be interested in hypermedia systems and spent a wonderful six months sabbatical at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor developing new ideas in this area.

On my return to Southampton, I established myself as one of the few multimedia experts in the UK and began work on the Microcosm hypermedia system that was to lead to so many exciting career opportunities for both myself and my team. At the same time I was working with local schools to try to encourage more girls to study computing, and networking with women in computing at other universities to share ideas about how best to do this on a national scale.

In 1994, I was promoted to full professor - the first female professor of engineering at the University of Southampton - and I realised that the time I was spending on “women in computing” activities was putting me at a competitive disadvantage with my male colleagues. I decided to focus on my research and the launch of the new company that we had set-up to exploit the results of my group’s work. In 1996 I was awarded a 5-year EPSRC Senior Research Fellowship. These were like gold dust in the UK at the time as only three were awarded each year across all the engineering and physical science disciplines.

During my fellowship, I built up my team and the Department at Southampton, and became established as one of the top computer scientists in the UK. My work increasingly focussed on the development of the Web and in particular the Semantic Web. Honours and awards followed. In 2002 I took up the position of Head of School at Southampton and was elected to become President of the British Computer Society in 2003-04. I had made it!  So now it was time to give back.

The situation regarding women in computing in the UK was no better in the first decade of the 21st century than it had been when I started in the 1980’s. Despite numerous initiatives, the number of women studying computer science at university, including Southampton, was and still it pitifully small, and the latest research indicates that the percentage of women working in IT is falling rather than increasing.

While I was President of the BCS I was instrumental in establishing the BCS Women’s Forum, the work of which is now being carried forward as part of the BCS Policy and Publics Affairs Board in the capable hands of Rebecca George. While I was President of the ACM from 2008-10, I was able to establish ACM-W councils both at main board level and in the regional councils. I currently chair the Diversity Committee of the Royal Academy of Engineering. So I’ve not stopped working to try to improve the situation.

But being a good role model and mentor is not enough - it doesn’t scale. We need big initiatives that are sustainable over a long period of time. We need to excite young people today, particularly girls, by inspiring them with visions of the wonderful careers they can have and how they can help society if they embark on careers in computing or IT. We need to engineer a culture change in our industry to ensure that as it evolves it attracts a much diverse range of people to work in it, including as many women as men.

When you consider the increasingly amazing applications of IT in areas that traditionally attract women, such as medicine, education and the entertainment industry, and the fact that now as many women as men interact with computers through the Web, this should not be difficult to do. But it will take a sustained effort by all concerned - men and women alike.

My term of office as Head of School finished in 2007 and after a wonderful few years returning to research to establish the discipline of Web Science and set up the Web Science Trust, I became Dean of Physical Science and Engineering at Southampton. Yet again I became responsible for student recruitment and trying to encourage women to apply for science and engineering degrees. It has got no easier.

My term of office as Dean is now coming to an end and I am looking forward to engaging with several new projects, particularly our Web Observatory project that is aiming to establish a global forum for sharing datasets and analytical tools to support Web Science research. I am enjoying my role in the development of international policies around Web and Internet governance. This is such an important area for the whole of society going forward. I am still very motivated to explore new ideas and to translate them into practical solutions for the commercial world.

Web Science attracts as many women as men because it is so interdisciplinary and tackles global issues at the interaction of society and technology. Also as I travel round the world, visiting universities in many different countries, I see women just as eager to learn about computing as men - particularly in India and SE Asia. This reinforces the hypothesis that the lack of women in computing in Europe and the USA is a cultural issue and not genetically determined. Our industry is one of the most exciting it is possible to work in - if I can make a difference by encouraging more women to realise this then I will feel I have achieved something.

About Wendy

Dame Wendy Hall, DBE, FRS, FREng is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, and Dean of the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering.

With Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt she co-founded the Web Science Research Initiative in 2006 and she is currently a Director of the Web Science Trust, which has a global mission to support the development of research, education and thought leadership in Web Science.

She became a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the 2009 UK New Year's Honours list, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 2009.

She was President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) from 2008-2010; the first person from outside North America to hold this position. Other significant posts she has held include Senior Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, founding member of the European Research Council, member of the EPSRC Council, President of the British Computer Society and EPSRC Senior Research Fellow. She was Chair of the European Commission’s ISTAG 2010-2012. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Robotics and Smart Devices.

Join now

The real figures

BCS and eSkills have updated for 2014 the Women in IT Scorecard.

BCS survey

79% of IT professionals feel that the profession would benefit from having more women working in IT roles - read more results from our recent survey.

Women in IT

Three expert women in IT debate the issues and suggest some innovative solutions to the gender imbalance problem in IT. Watch the debate

Interview

Listen to an interview with Gillian Arnold, Chair of BCSWomen and Kate Russell, journalist and author, discussing why it’s important for more women to be part of the IT profession.

Get involved

#womeninit