Abie Award Winners, Technical Leadership

Wendy Hall

2006 Women Of Vision ABIE Award Winner for Technical Leadership

Wendy Hall is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK and is currently Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS).  She was the founding Head of the Intelligence, Agents, Multimedia (IAM) Research Group in ECS, which is now established as one of the leading research groups in computer science and is widely recognised as having made huge advances in intelligent information systems. She has published over 350 papers in areas such as hypermedia, multimedia, digital libraries, and distributed information systems. Her personal research achievements range from the pre-Web Microcosm hypermedia system, to the development of Web-based link services. She is currently working on a range of prototype Semantic Web applications, and with the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and others at Southampton, she is developing a new research initiative in the emerging field of Web Science.

She is currently Senior Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and a founder member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. She is a Past President of the British Computer Society (BCS) and currently chairs the BCS Women’s Forum. She was recently elected as Vice President of the ACM. She is also a member of IW3C2 and was executive chair of the 15th International WWW conference in Edinburgh in May 2006. She is a non-executive Director of several companies and charitable trusts.

She was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday honors’ list in 2000, and became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the same year. She is also a Fellow of the BCS, the IEE, and the City and Guilds of London Institute and holds a number of honorary degrees.

The UK Fawcett campaign for equality between men and women, named her as an Inspiring Woman in 2005, and the UK Research Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology selected her as one of six world-class Women of Outstanding Achievement in SET in March 2006.

A longer biography is available at http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/~wh


Dr. Wendy Hall’s Recipient Statement

This was an award I didn’t expect to win. When Jennifer Chase left a message for me to call her, I assumed it was a follow-up to the seminar I gave at Microsoft earlier in the year. I was lost for words when she told me that I had won the award – and being lost for words is very unusual for me.  I am truly thrilled to be the recipient of the Anita Borg award for Technical Leadership this year. It is a tremendous honour and one I shall always be proud of. It is a particular honour because it is an award from a US-based organisation which means that my work in the UK has been recognised internationally.

I was not always passionate about computing. I started my academic career as a mathematician and hated computing while I was doing my first degree. It was the 1970′s and computing was all about using punched cards to write FORTRAN programmes. I gave it up as soon as I found out the course was non-examinable! However, my career took a new turn in the 1980′s when I was a lecturer at a college of higher education training the next generation of mathematics teachers. The first personal computers were just hitting the market, and the college had bought a Commodore PET. Because I was a mathematician they asked me to set-up a new computing course. I took the Commodore PET home for the summer vacation and taught myself BASIC. Over the next year, I became fascinated by how these new machines could be used in education. I did a part-time masters degree in computer science and took a new job back at the University of Southampton but this time in the Department of Computer Science, and the rest as they say is history.

Within a year or so of my move back to Southampton two things had happened. Firstly, I became very aware of the lack of women interested in computing because we had so few female undergraduate students on our computer science degree. Secondly, I started to experiment with the development of multimedia information systems. I quickly moved on to be interest in hypermedia systems and spent a wonderful six months sabbatical at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor developing new ideas in this area. On my return to Southampton, I established myself as one of the few multimedia experts in the UK and began work on the Microcosm hypermedia system that was to lead to so many exciting career opportunities for myself and my team. At the same time I was working with local schools to try to encourage more girls to study computing, and networking with women in computing at other universities to share ideas about how best to do this on a national scale.

In 1994, I was promoted to full professor – the first female professor of engineering at the University of Southampton – and I realised that the time I was spending on “women in computing” activities was putting me at a competitive disadvantage with my male colleagues. I decided to focus on my research and the launch of the new company that we had set-up to exploit the results of my group’s work. In 1996 I was awarded a 5-year EPSRC Senior Research Fellowship. These are like gold-dust in the UK as only three are awarded each year across all the engineering and physical science disciplines. During my fellowship, I built up my team at Southampton and became established as one of the top computer scientists in the UK. Honours and awards followed. In 2002 I took up the position of Head of School at Southampton and was elected to become President of the British Computer Society in 2003-04. I had made it!  So now it was time to give back.

The situation regarding women in computing in the UK was no better in the first decade of the 21st century than it had been in the 1980′s when I started. Despite numerous initiatives, the number of women studying computer science at university, including Southampton, was still pitifully small, and the latest research indicated that the percentage of women working in IT was falling rather than increasing. It was clear to me that the problem is deeply cultural and that a myriad of small initiatives is not the answer. There is no quick fix. Being a good role model and mentor is not enough. We need big initiatives that are sustainable over a long period of time. We need to excite young people today, particularly girls, by inspiring with visions of the wonderful careers they could have in the computing and IT industries when they graduate from university in 10 or 12 years from now. Our industry will be very different then – radically different from how it is today. We need to engineer a culture change in our industry to ensure that as it evolves it attracts a much broader range of people to work in it, including as many women as men. When you consider the increasingly amazing applications of IT in areas that traditionally attract women, such as medicine, education and the entertainment industry, and the role that the life sciences such as biology are beginning to play in the way we build complex IT systems, this should not be difficult to do. But it will take a sustained effort by everyone concerned.

While I was President of the BCS I was instrumental in establishing the BCS Women’s Forum, which I hope will be a significant player in these developments. My senior role in the Royal Academy of Engineering gives me another strong base from which to seek influence at the highest levels. I have just been elected as Vice President of the ACM, which is an exciting new venture for me in an organisation that is based outside the UK. My term of office as Head of School is coming to an end and I am looking forward to starting several new projects including the establishment of a new Web Science research initiative and the launch of another new company as well as continuing in my national advisory role. I am still very motivated to explore new ideas and to translate them into practical solutions for the commercial world. Our industry is one of the most exciting it is possible to work in – if I can make a difference by encouraging more women to realise this then I will feel I have achieved something.