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Women, and the future of IT

Professor Wendy Hall talks to The Reg

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Interview There is a revolution coming in computing, and women will lead it. So says Professor Wendy Hall, computer scientist, advisor to the government, and president of the British Computer Society.

She's talking to us today about why there are so few women in IT, why it matters, and what can be done to change things.

Computer science grew out of mathematics, and there were similar proportion of women in both the departments. In the early days of the subject, there were plenty of women working in industry and in academia, Hall says. But in the mid-eighties, the personal computer arrived, and with that, the culture changed beyond recognition.

"It became about playing and coding war games," she explains. "This really turned women off the subject, and we've never really recovered."

IT departments became very male places, and the techies traded acronyms and buzzwords to determine their position in the hierarchy. "I believe that this is now so culturally ingrained that throwing money at it won't change anything in the short term. You could discriminate: say everyone woman who applied for a computing related course could study for free, for example, but I don't know how successful that would be."

Instead, Hall suggests, the place to attack the problem is at the start of adolescence. "This is when the gender divide really sets in," she says. "But there is no point painting these girls a picture of life as a sysadmin. Quite apart from it not being very exciting, that is the industry as it is now, not as it will be in ten years when they join the workforce."

She reminds us that ten years ago, the internet hadn't really happened. Anyone transported from 1994 to the present day would probably be surprised by what they would find here. There is no reason to think that the transformation of the industry over the next ten years will be any less dramatic.

"We are moving towards a situation where we'll have zillions of processors all interconnected," she says. "It'll be a very large, very complex system, and we need to learn how to make something that complex adaptive, robust and flexible. Nature is very good at complex systems, and that is where we have to take our cue."

There is a lot of this about in the industry. BT has researchers looking at how fruit flies can help us to develop smarter wireless networks; others are trying to make the way we interact with technology more human, and Microsoft has multidisciplinary teams at its Cambridge research facility looking at similar areas.

Other research is even more intriguing - some researchers are letting circuitry design itself, using evolutionary principles, for instance.

Hall paints a picture of a world where everything is smaller and cleverer, or at least less stupid. Systems will be more tailored than they are now, technology will be hidden behind a smarter interface, and we'll have software agents that will negotiate services for us.

The sorts of skills required to deal with this brave new world with be the ones women have in abundance, and the subjects that attract more women will be the ones that become more important. Hall predicts that in the next five years, there will be computer science courses that require applicants to have a biology A-Level.

Traditionally women-dominated subjects, such as psychology and sociology, will grow in importance too, as the industry becomes more about personal support than systems support.

"The nature of the industry is going to change. So we need to look at that and say to these young women, 'Here is an intellectual challenge that you'll really enjoy'."

Professor Wendy Hall is Professor of Computer Science at Southampton University. She founded the Intelligence, Agents, Multimedia (IAM) Research Group in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton and is currently the Head of School. She also carries a picture of herself with David Beckham in her wallet.

You can find out more about Professor Hall and her research projects here. ®

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