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Trailblazers: Famous women in computer science

The role of women in the field of computer science can’t be underestimated or ignored. In fact, the person now considered the first computer scientist was a woman. Ada Lovelace, a mathematician, wrote the very first machine algorithm. Unfortunately, Lovelace died before she could see her computer program in use. However, her legacy has influenced and inspired generations since.

Below, we shine a light on some of the women in the field today and discover how they helped shape the world in which we live.

Professor Sue Black, OBE

One of the most prominent women in computer science, Sue Black, left home at 16 years old and dropped out of school before completing her A Levels.. She was married at 20 and had three children by the time she was 23. At 25, after spending six months in a women’s refuge, she moved into a council flat with her young children and decided to return to education as a single mother.

Black started with an evening class at her local college, followed it with a computing degree and began her PhD in software engineering in 2001. Now she has over 20 years’ experience in the field and is an award-winning computer scientist, technology evangelist and digital skills expert, sharing her knowledge through teaching, consultancy work, speaking and writing. In 2016 she received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for her contribution to technology.

Her passion for the subject inspired her to create BCSWomen, the UK’s first and largest member group for female and non-binary professionals dedicated to supporting those already in the field, and encouraging women and girls into a career in tech. Alongside BCSWomen she also founded #techmums, an organisation which supports mothers in becoming more familiar with technology in all aspects of their lives, and led the successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, home of the World War II codebreakers.

Professor Katie Atkinson

Katie Atkinson, a professor of computer science, has focused her research on computational models; the use of computers to simulate complicated processes, full of variables, and record and reflect the many outcomes. Computational modelling has been used to test everything from the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs to predicting weather systems. Atkinson’s work however, focuses on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and law, using computational modelling to recreate the thought processes and persuasive reasoning abilities of professionals within the legal field.

Atkinson worked with the law firm Weightmans to create a legal decision engine capable of identifying arguments to help settle cases and uses AI to mimic the decision making of judges. In 2019, she was selected to join a group of experts to advise the top judges of England and Wales on the development of AI within the legal sector, and with over 150 publications to her name she has become a leading expert in the field of AI and the law.

Professor Karen Spärck Jones

Professor Karen Spärck Jones was an instrumental figure in computer science and a great advocate for women in the field, often quoted as saying, "I think it's very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men."

Much of Jones’ work focused on language. She combined statistics with vocabulary and developed systems which could understand natural language and help people access, and retrieve, information more efficiently. One of her most important contributions was the Inverse Document Frequency (IDF) weighting method, a system which assigns a value to words and ranks their importance in documents. Her work on this shaped the development of one of the most important and widely used tools in all our lives – the search engine.

After her death in 2007, the British Computer Society (BCS), along with their Information Retrieval Specialist Group (BCS IRSG) created the Karen Spärck Jones Award to honour her outstanding contribution to the sector.

Professor Edith Elkind

Edith Elkind, a computer scientist and mathematician, is a leading authority in the field of computational social choice. Her work focuses on the development of mathematical models and algorithms aimed to understand and analyse social proceedings, like voting, with one of Elkind’s most important contributions examining bribery in voting.

She has also worked within Algorithmic game theory (AGT). AGT is aimed at researching and developing algorithms to study strategic decision making and examining how one interaction can shape and change the outcome of others. Elkind has worked on a variety of topics in this area, including elections, auctions, and cooperation within games, and continues to lead the field when it comes to AGT.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall

Wendy Hall was one of the first computer scientists to work extensively in multimedia and hypermedia and, along with a small team, developed the Microcosm hypermedia system. A hypermedia system is an electronic environment which connects various media sources, from text and images to audio clips and videos, through a database of hyperlinks. The biggest and easiest example of a hypermedia system used today is the World Wide Web. Hall’s Microcosm was a precursor to the internet we know and use today.

Like the others discussed here, Hall is a champion of women within computer science, has won numerous awards for significant contributions to the field and became a Dame in 2009. She also became the chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an organisation dedicated to ensuring data and AI work for people and society, in 2020.


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