29 March 2017 | 12 °C

The Geek Goddess Of London

Sarah Jayne Bell
By Sarah Jayne Bell Last edited 15 months ago
The Geek Goddess Of London
Dr Sue Black wants everyone to learn about technology (that's her on the left with pink hair).

Londonist loves the internet — we would not exist without it. Which is why we reserve a special chip in our silicon heart for computer scientists like Dr Sue Black. Sue is a geek goddess. She led the campaign to save Bletchley Park, the wartime birthplace of modern British computing, and launched the TechMums programme to teach women to code. "We need to help the average person in the street to understand how technology can change lives for the better" says Black. "Lots of people are still fearful of tech, and there is a danger the UK will be left behind if we don't upskill."

Pink-haired Sue is not your average tablet thumping tech evangelist. Her career in computing had a humble start when she returned to study maths at night-school in her mid-twenties. A single mum of three kids from a council estate in Brixton, she juggled her way through university to a PhD. She went on to become Head of Computer Science at the University of Westminster. Noticing that her gender seemed to make some other computer scientists act strangely, Sue set up BCS Women. The network supports women working in or studying computing and IT, and campaigns for change in a sector that has weirdly become more male dominated in the last 30 years.

Dr Sue Black (photo shared via creative commons).

Saving Bletchley Park

During the second world war more than half the workforce at Bletchley Park, code breaking HQ, were women. Alan Turing's role in designing a computer to break German secret codes was recently celebrated in the film Enigma. It is less well known that he was one of more than 10,000 people working at Bletchley Park, then called 'Station X'. At a BCS Women event in 2008 Sue learned that Bletchley Park was under threat of closure. Station X had remained top secret for 50 years after the war, and the volunteers who opened it up as a museum were desperately short of funds.

Unwilling to let one of the most important sites of computing and British history close, Sue launched the 'Saving Bletchley Park' campaign. "We wrote a letter to The Times and got coverage on the BBC, but we realised that social media could be much more powerful. In three years we secured the future of the site". The story of the campaign and the history of Station X are told in the book 'Saving Bletchley Park'. It was the fastest ever crowd funded book, and will be out in October.

TechMums

Saving the history of computing in the UK is one thing, securing its future is another. When Sue ran projects to teach kids coding she noticed that dads were keen to get stuck in but mums stayed in the background. "People who work in overseas development know that if you want to achieve social change, you start with mothers. So that's what I did." Sue's latest venture is TechMums, which teaches women basic IT skills and coding. The project started in Bromley and Tower Hamlets and Sue has plans to take it nationwide.

Mums learning to code a Raspberry Pi with TechMums.

TechMums is a simple but powerful idea. It brings technology within reach of people who have been scared off by stereotypes and inadequate education. Giving women skills in computing and IT improves their employment and business opportunities. They are able to help their kids learn that technology is not just something to be passively consumed for entertainment and shopping. All this is good for the future of the British economy in a digital world. It also changes lives.

"Technology is life changing" could be a bland slogan from yet another uber-rich whiz kid with a microphone stuck to his face. But when Dr Sue Black says it, you know it's the truth.    

Get Involved

You can get involved in TechMums as a volunteer to set up a course, a school to host a course, or a mum willing to learn. You can also make a donation (scroll past the python interpreter to the bottom of the page).

If you want to know more about how computer science in the US went from more than 35% women graduates in 1984 to less than 20% in 2014, listen to this NPR podcast. It's not about London, but we think its interesting.

Last Updated 18 December 2015

Barry_Edwards

I retired in 2005 after 45 years in IT. Most of the time I was in the public sector and most of my colleagues were female. But a few contracting jobs in the private sector towards the end suggested more males. Is there a gender divide between software and hardware? As a lot of software is now outsourced to the rest of the world does that make the remaining jobs more oriented towards hardware and therefore more male?

Finally, in retirement I help various friends with their IT issues and note that females seem more likely to say "I'm no good with IT" and ask for help whilst males keep pressing buttons until something happens.

I realize most of this is a generalization but, until we get more young women into all sorts of engineering and design, including IT, it seems likely to continue.