Encouraging Women in Software: The BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium

Posted by s.hettrick on 30 April 2014 - 9:41am

By Amy Guy, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh.

In this post, Amy discusses her career as a computer scientist - starting at age 8 - and the excellent BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium.

Having built my first website at age 10, taught myself to touch type at age 8, and long since had access to an array of machines thanks to my Dad's burgeoning interest in computers during my early years, I've been a woman in software to some degree for as long as I can remember.
I have been fortunate enough not to have suffered from - or perhaps naive enough not to have noticed - any sexist behaviour during this time. Through high school I loved every subject, and since computing wasn't taught at that time (the reader can go elsewhere to learn about the state of the UK ICT curriculum), web development was something I did in my free time. Perhaps it was because I went to an all-girls high school, where there was nobody to tell me what boys do and what girls do that nobody thought of it as an odd past time. I was lucky enough to be supported by superb teachers: I was awarded high marks when I made a website as part of every Design & Technology project, and my GCSE maths teacher taught me Visual Basic during lunch hours. Despite minor peer pressure to study a real subject at University - nothing to do with masculinity, rather they were unable to see its value compared to traditional subjects like medicine, chemistry or geography - nobody was really surprised when I went on to do a BSc Web Technology at the University of Lincoln.
Going from an all-girls high school to the enormously male-dominated School of Computing at Lincoln was a culture shock for all of about thirty seconds. Truly, I didn't notice, made a ton of friends, and generally had a great time there. I didn't feel looked down on or not taken seriously. Nobody seemed hesitant to come to me to ask for help with assignments. I was treated, by lecturers and students alike, as a person not as a girl. Nobody ever gave me any reason to believe I couldn't do something simply because of my gender.
Great! I sure was lucky! I didn't realise at the time how rare experiences like this really were. I was somewhat scornful of positive discrimination when I encountered the concept. I have been told that I only <insert achievement here> because <someone> had a diversity quota to fill. Fortunately by the time this was happening, I had enough confidence to point out how hard I worked to get to where I was. Whilst a part of me still remains dubious when I see preferential treatment will be given to women who apply on tech job adverts, I realise now that it is often necessary simply to compensate for the ingrained prejudices of hiring committees, or to spur on women who have had their self-confidence damaged by sexist treatment, or who genuinely aren't sure if they are welcome in a male-dominated work environment.
My lack of appreciation for positive discrimination didn't stop me from jumping at any opportunities that came my way through this route though. When Professor Cornelia Boldyreff and (then PhD student, now Dr.) Beth Massey invited me to come along to the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium with them, I was thrilled. The Lovelace Colloquium is a conference for female undergraduate students in technology-related fields in the UK, and 2009 was the second year it had been running. I haven't missed a year since.
Every conference has technical talks, advice-about-being-a-woman-in-tech kind of talks, discussion panels with successful women in the field from industry and academia, and ample networking opportunities, plus the chance for attendees to present a poster about their work or some topic that interests them. All crammed into a single day, and hosted at a different university in the UK each year. What better way to inspire young female computer scientists, broaden their awareness of the field, and show them that they are by no means alone?
During Lovelace 2009 in Leeds, I met a recruiter from significant technology company, from whom I learnt that employees of that company are actual human beings, not mysterious abstract concepts. We kept in touch. In 2010 (Cardiff), I presented a poster about an idea for a side project and won the runner-up Peoples' Choice Award. I also re-met that recruiter, and a couple of months later she emailed me to suggest that I apply for an internship in her team, which I interviewed for, and got. Spending the summer at Google London was a concrete outcome of attending the Lovelace Colloquium! In 2011 (Birmingham), my final year as an undergraduate, I presented a poster about my dissertation project and jointly won the Original Project category prize. In 2012 (Bath) and 2013 (Nottingham), no longer eligible to enter the poster contest as an MSc by Research and then a PhD student, I was honoured to be asked to return as a judge instead. Every year I have left with new friends, new ideas, and a better understanding of different peoples' experiences in the technology domain.
This year's Lovelace Colloquium was at the University of Reading on 16 April, and I was super excited to go again. I've seen the abstracts beforehand, and the quality of the posters accepted is consistently high. We had around 140 attendees, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet and hopefully inspire a bunch of young women who are where I was just a few years ago.
I hope for a day when women's interest in technology subjects is normalised to the extent that we don't need special events to encourage it any more; when all experiences of female computing students mirror my own; when everyone who wants to make a difference, regardless of gender (or anything else), is willing and able to turn to technology to do so. Getting there is about raising awareness of the possibilities and promoting a diverse and inclusive environment for all. The Lovelace Colloquium does this, and for as long as it continues it has my full support.
(Don't forget to look out for details of next year's Lovelace, hosted by my own School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, on 9 April 2015).