Interviews Magazine

CONNECT Interview: Professor Sue Black

CONNECT meets Professor Sue Black, one of the top 50 women in tech in Europe and TNC21’s first keynote speaker. Professor Black talked us through her inspiring personal story, about her passion for technology, and the importance to fill the gender gap for women in STEM.

Professor Black, what did you know about GÉANT and were you familiar with our flagship conference TNC?

I was not familiar with GÉANT, and I had never heard about your conference, but I am now very intrigued by the Research & Education community and the areas in which GÉANT operates. I am always excited to meet and talk to new audiences and look forward to presenting at TNC21.

In your TNC21 keynote “If I can do it, so can you” you tell the inspiring and motivating autobiographical story of one woman’s determination to succeed. Could you share the highlights of your talk?

I come from an average family, but life changed drastically for me after losing my mum when I was a child. My family transitioned from functional to dysfunctional, I left school at 16 and ended up getting married quite young. Unfortunately, my circumstances became worse when, in my early twenties, I had to move to a women’s refuge with my three children.

Most of my talk is indeed about the time after these events because gradually, whilst trying to create a better life for my children, I ended up creating a better life for myself. I went back into education and enrolled at a local college, my studies led to a degree in computing, and as my passion for technology grew, I completed a PhD in software engineering and stayed in academia. In my keynote I also talk about how 23 years ago, during my PhD, I set up the first UK online network for women in technology.

Why? Most of the academic conferences in computer science I attended had a 90% male participation, I often felt isolated and excluded until I took part in a brilliant conference for women in science in Brussels. To be surrounded by dozens of like-minded women passionate about science and technology felt like a party: when you are in the majority life is undeniably easier! That event was a turning point as it made me realise the power of women’s networks. In our society girls are brought up to give priority to the needs of those around them, and I am convinced that this approach has detrimental effects on our understanding of how to behave in the workplace and ultimately on our mental health.

As a technology evangelist, based on your experience and knowledge, what do you think can be done to fill the gender gap for women in STEM?

Not just one thing. Lots of different things. It is linked to the way in which our society sees women. It’s about what we can do as individuals and organisations to embrace a more inclusive culture. Our history shows how women haven’t been treated as equals and this is accepted and ingrained in our society and our way of thinking, but events such as the #metoo movement started to help us all to see more clearly. It is not about a gender war, women vs men, it’s beyond that, it’s about equality and equity which are fundamental human rights.

For instance, at Durham University academic applicants are required to write a diversity and inclusion statement which is a decisive factor in the recruitment process. A small but significant step in the right direction. And I can say that I have witnessed some changes in the last twenty years and the existence of hundreds of active women in tech groups are the living proof.

What tips would you give to a girl who is unsure about pursuing a career in STEM when self-belief and self-determination are in need of a boost?

Find other girls who feel the same way as you, find other people who understand your viewpoint and are ready to support you. Work together, support each other, find mentors and people who are ahead of you on the path you have chosen and can guide you along the way. It is not always easy to find your path, but the availability of people who are ready to support you will put you in a much stronger position. Social media and the internet are also great enablers of support networks, mentorships and collaborations.

What’s around the corner for Sue Black?

In 2019 at Durham University, we launched the TechUPWomen programme which aims to create pathways in tech careers for women with degrees, from minority groups.

For years companies have been asking us for advice on how to employ more women in technical roles, sharing with us their struggle in the search for the right candidates. TechUPWomen aims to be that link to fill that gap, whilst supporting women graduates who have the ambition and the potential, but just don’t know how to get into tech.

Working with 15 industry partners to create a training programme tailored to industry needs we identified four target roles: software developer, agile project manager, business analyst and data scientist. The TechUPWomen participants (with degrees in any subject area including music, medieval literature, and geography) go through a six-month online programme at the end of which they are able to apply for one of these four roles.

Our most recent programme took 100 women from underrepresented communities in North England, retrained them, gave them the opportunity to interview with a company, and over 50 of them now have jobs in tech.

I am currently looking for funding and partners to scale TechUPWomen as I would like to run it internationally in Kenya, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. We know that the programme works, this is why we are very keen to scale it. These are the challenges I enjoy, I love solving problems that haven’t yet been addressed, and thrive in the solution-finding process.

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