BCSWomen specialist group: Our history
BCSWomen – how it all started...by Sue Black, Founder and first chair of BCSWomen.
Hi, my name is Sue Black. I set up the first online network for women in tech in the UK: London BCSWomen in 1998 which in 2001 became BCSWomen. Here’s why I set it up and and a bit about its history.
In 1998 I was a single parent with three small kids, I was also a PhD student at South Bank University carrying out research in software measurement.
My PhD was hard but fun. Before I finished it I was encouraged to apply for a full time lectureship at the same university, I applied and got the job. I had a salary for the first time in many years, so finally I was providing properly for my children and taking us all out of poverty.
Carrying out research for a PhD in computer science and going to academic conferences I was very much in a minority as a woman. The ratio was around 2:8 female to male, or lower, and sometimes this made things a bit uncomfortable. I remember going to one conference where, after being told by my supervisor that I needed to network at conferences, I approached a couple of guys during a break to discuss the previous session. I plucked up courage and said something friendly about the last speaker to start a conversation with them. They looked me up and down, and then started talking to each other as if I hadn’t said anything. I stood there feeling really silly, realized after about thirty seconds that they were going to continue to ignore me, and then walked away feeling absolutely mortified.
I had a few other encounters similar to this, and of course some good ones too, but I never felt completely at ease in that type of situation. That was until I went to a conference in Brussels for Women in Science. This time there were about one hundred women and two men. As I walked into the conference room and stood looking around wondering where to go and sit, a woman came over and started talking to me. We had a great chat and joined a conversation with some other women, probably about why we were at the conference and what we hoped to get out of it. What an amazing difference. I met some truly amazing, inspiring and supportive women, and luckily sat next to an amazing woman from the US called Aliza Sherman. That conference changed my life.
I had thought that it was me, and my lack of social skills, that was preventing me from enjoying academic life to the full. Now I realized that wasn’t the case.
A changed woman...
I went home from Brussels a changed woman, and a woman wanting to help make that same difference to other women. With the help of the British Computer Society (BCS) central London branch I set up an online group for women in computing. I asked the women in the group what they wanted from it, they said “free training in internet technology” it was 1998. The BCS central London branch kindly agreed to fund this training, specifically for group members, we ran the training and it was a tremendous success. In fact, so much of a success, that we were featured in the Daily Mirror, a UK national newspaper.
After the feature I was inundated with women wanting to join the group. As it was a London based group I needed to set up a national group for the BCS. To do this I had to become a chartered member of the BCS and get board level approval. This took me some time, but eventually in October 2001 (one month after finishing my PhD) I set up a national group for women in computing called BCSWomen.
BCSWomen has grown in size over the last ten years, there are currently around one and a half thousand members, who all communicate with, and support each other. I stepped down as Chair of the group in 2008, handing over to a new Chair and a very capable management committee. BCSWomen Chair is currently the fabulous Gillian Arnold.
I’m so proud that at the time of writing BCSWomen will have been running for fourteen years, and it’s now seventeen years since we first started off as London BCSWomen. Time flies.
Our first major project was the 'Women of Station X' an oral history project to document the memories of the women who worked at Bletchley Park. The launch of the project was covered by ZDNet 'Recognising Bletchley’s Unsung Heroines'.