Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Sheila Thomson - female role model in technology

Sheila Thomson
Credit: photo by m0dlx (and it’s only a coincidence that the bean bag is girly pink!)

Today it’s Ada Lovelace Day - the brainchild of Suw Charman-Anderson, who started this pledge at PledgeBank:

“I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

Needless to say I signed up, as did many others, and the 1000 figure was reached pretty quickly. So here is my blog post.

The importance of female role models

First, why is it important to girls and women to have female role models – whether in computer science or sport or anything else? Surely in this 21st century everyone is treated equally regardless of gender, right?

Well, unfortunately - no. See Suw’s blog post and the links referred to in it, for starters.

There’s been a lot of research showing that role models matter to women, and having same-sex role models helps women more than it helps men, because of the impact on self-esteem: “results indicated that female participants were more inspired by outstanding female than male role models; in contrast, gender did not determine the impact of role models on male participants” - and indeed in one study even “female role models, although primarily chosen by females, were chosen by males to symbolise traits stereotypically associated with females: “…yes [I do have certain female role models]…[ I admire certain qualities of them]..they’re very good listeners..show good ability to relate to people and make them feel comfortable in terms of creating a good friendly family type environment…they’re very warm…”

For years it’s been well known that there will be a shortage of workers in the IT industry, and that women need to be encouraged to consider careers in information technology but that they don’t enter the field partly because of the lack of female role models.

So it’s disheartening that the most we seem to get are token efforts and some lip service rather than real change.

But hopefully, initiatives like Ada Lovelace Day will help by publicising lots of real life role models.

And for those who don’t know about Ada Lovelace, poet Lord Byron’s daughter, she was effectively the first computer programmer. Yes, the first programmer was female.

Sheila Thomson

Now on to my blog post proper.

I’m not blogging about the handful of well-known women in computing / technology whose names people can recite off the tops of their heads (some people anyway; not enough). I’ve already mentioned some famous women in computing science before and no doubt I will again, as will many others.

This time, I’m blogging about Sheila Thomson, pictured above, because I think it’s important to draw attention to the achievements of ordinary women too: those women in technology whose accomplishments might otherwise be little sung (at least at present – who’s to say how famous she may become in future!).

I am blogging about Sheila as a role model because she is one.

She’s an example par excellence of someone who’s successfully moved into a technology career entirely through her own efforts and skills.

While Sheila was working as a school librarian, she taught herself computing and became an expert in XSLT.

When an opening for an XSLT specialist came up at the BBC, she applied. They didn’t insist on a formal qualification in computer science - they wanted someone who really knew the subject properly, and she proved that she did by passing their subject matter test with flying colours.

She is now a software engineer with the BBC working at the BBC World Service. What’s more, she also gives up a lot of her own time to volunteer with the Open Rights Group.

UPDATE: Here's a great video of Sheila on electronic voting - doing a spoof evil-dictator presentation, pointing out the strengths of traditional voting methods and how e-voting in fact makes it much easier for the ill-intentioned to control the outcome of an election. Talk proper starts at 1 min 48 secs, for the impatient!

And here is a video of Sheila talking about XSL at at BarCampLondon, filmed by Ian Forrester:

If Sheila is not a role model for women in technology, then I don’t know who is!

And I’d also like to mention Sarah Blow who founded the Girl Geek Dinners, a concept which has now spread worldwide; and inspirational teachers like researcher Dr Alessandra Russo.

There are plenty of female role models in technology – just not enough, and not enough known about. May all that change – and soon.

See also the list of Ada Lovelace Day posts, and a geographical map showing Ada Lovelace day posts from the Ada Lovelace Day collection / mashup.


I know Sheila personally (and I’m also an ORG member), so some might say I’m a bit biased. But I’m not – her achievements are real, and she deserves full credit for them. I have been involved with the Girl Geek Dinners too.

1 comment:

Ian Forrester said...

Awesome to see Sheila listed. I was honestly thinking about adding Sheila but decided it would be too weird as we're close friends.