Around 10 years ago I was working on a research project in London, and saw a notice for a conference aimed at postgraduate and early career researcher women called the ‘London Hopper’. I’d been to a lot of specialist research conferences in the past but had never been to a women’s event before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
To my slight surprise (I’m really not a very girly person) I actually found it hugely enjoyable and inspiring. I won the poster contest and came away with a small pile of cash, but more importantly with the motivation to go off and do something similar myself.
There was nothing like this for undergraduate women. I did some research and worked out that the organisation in the UK who were doing most in this area were the BCS, through BCSWomen. So I joined the BCS, joined BCSWomen, talked my way onto a committee conference call, pitched my idea, and found myself in charge.
In 2008 I put on the first BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium, in Leeds. I raised some sponsorship to cover travel for the students, and a bit of other stuff. We had five speakers including a keynote from the BCS president that year, Rachel Burnett. We had about 30 posters from undergraduates, about as many other attendees (sponsors and helpers and other students).
A couple of local employers came along and had stalls. The lunch was made by me. We finished with a lovely social in the students’ union bar with a pink birthday cake from Morrisons and some bottled drinks the bar had sold me really cheaply because they were about to go out-of-date.
In 2016 we held our 9th event at Sheffield Hallam University, and in many respects it was just like our first: energetic and enthusiastic students, technical talks from industry and academia, an inspiring keynote from someone within the BCS (this year BCSWomen Committee member Sarah Winmill, who was frankly awesome).
The student travel is still refunded through corporate sponsorship. But now we have 80 poster contest finalists, and slightly more other attendees (mostly local non-presenting students), which takes us into a different league.
Prizes are bigger, and we had 12 stalls this year including SAP, Google, ARM, Bloomberg and many other big names. Our social still involved the students’ union, but it involved a bar tab (thanks to ScottLogic) and some food cooked by a proper chef. And cake. There is always cake at the Lovelace. We were three times as large as the first one, with about 200 people registered.
Nearly 400 students have been to a Lovelace now, many of whom have returned again and again. We have students who came in their first year and then every year until graduating from an MSc. Most universities in the UK have sent a student or students at some point - this year we had finalists from Queen’s University Belfast to Cambridge, and from Exeter to Aberdeen.
Students have left with cash prizes, goodie bags full of swag, internships, and, in at least three cases, an actual graduate job. They’ve also had an experience of a conference, and the experience of travelling to a new city to talk about their own work. They’ve given up a day of their Easter holidays for this, but despite some obvious initial nerves they all throw themselves into the event.
As organiser, one of the coolest things about the day is the way the cake breaks get progressively louder and louder: by the last session it’s hard to get the students to quieten down so they can hear the final talks.
Women students are in a real minority and make up between five and 15 per cent of the UK computer science undergraduate population. I have many thoughts and opinions about why this is and what we can do to change it, but this is not an article about those.
Yes, it’s vitally important that we work to change the status quo, improve the ratio, unconscious bias, pipeline, skills gap, intersectionality, pay gap, lean in, reach out, and all of that stuff... but we also have to inspire and support the women who are already here and just starting out.
That’s what the Colloquium is for.
An organiser’s perspective
Deborah Adshead, local conference chair 2016, Sheffield Hallam University
What was your first Lovelace?
My first Lovelace was in 2011 at Birmingham University. I went to see what it was about and was blown away by the atmosphere of enthusiasm and support for the students, from the exhibitors to the speakers, but not least between the students themselves who made a real effort to get to know each other.
What do you get out of it?
Lots! We’ve attended every Lovelace since and successfully submitted student finalists to each; we’ve had three prize winners: in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Our students rave about it to their peers and some are already talking about ideas for next year’s poster! The boost of confidence it gives them is palpable. You can’t ask for more than that.
In 2016, you got to see ‘behind the scenes’ for the first time as a conference chair. How was this different?
I was absolutely delighted Sheffield Hallam was invited to host the 2016 event. It’s clear that Hannah and her team at Aberystwyth work hard every year to deliver this so I saw my job as local host to take some of the worry of the minutia away. The key difference for me was how much the element of competition disappeared; I was rooting for all the students, not just our own.
Would you do it again?
In a heartbeat! I now have a repeatable process I can use so bring it on.
A student’s perspective
Roseanna McMahon, final year undergraduate, University of Bath
What was your first Lovelace?
I first went to Lovelace in 2013 when I was in my first year. I had heard about it through the computer science department at uni and thought it sounded like fun! I am so glad I went along back in 2013 because I won best first year student for my entry ‘Codes in WWII, from the German Perspective.’
What do you get out of it?
It’s a great chance to network in a natural situation; there’s loads of other students there just like me - something we don’t often get to experience at university. It gave me the confidence to go up to the professionals attending the conference and just say hi; something I would be too intimidated to do in most other situations.
Why do you keep coming back?
Why wouldn’t I?! It’s always a great day to attend, a great evening out afterwards, and I’ve made friends there that I count as real friends, rather than just a twitter follow or a Linkedin connection.
What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned?
At the 2014 colloquium, when I was in my second year, I found the speakers particularly inspiring. I did my placement and have a graduate role within technology in banking and it was great to hear from women already there, and be reassured that I would always have support in industry.
Do you have any advice for first year women, just starting out?
Look around for activities / courses / conferences like this to attend. I’ve been to a variety of ‘technology for girls’ style events, and while nothing else has been as interactive or rewarding as Lovelace, they’re still worth going to. Meeting other students and having the chance to talk to women who have already been through university (or an alternative route) gives you a greater confidence that you’re not the only one, and that technology isn’t the scary man’s world that we seem to convince ourselves it is.