“My message to anyone from a background where they weren’t brought up to succeed is, we can all do it.”
Professor Sue Black is Durham University’s technology evangelist and the woman doing her best to put computer science on the equality map.
By Jo Dunbar
With a background that saw her study for a degree and PhD as a single parent to three young children, Professor Sue Black has been called a role model to women for many years.
Instrumental in the saving of Bletchley Park, and awarded an OBE in 2016 for services to technology, it might be hard to imagine that Sue started out studying in order to support her young family, even spending time in a women’s refuge. As her success has grown, Sue has seen it as her role to support women interested in pursuing careers in technology where females are often seriously under-represented. Today she is a Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University. Sue is married and is based in Surrey. She has four children and five grandchildren.
What attracted you to your role at Durham? The title technology evangelist sounds very exciting.
I always wanted to work at Durham. 20 years ago, when I was doing my PhD, the main university I chatted to about research was Durham and its centre for software maintenance. It’s world-famous. As an academic, I would go to international conferences and the people I always ended up hanging out with were from Durham. During my PhD, I applied for a lectureship at Durham and I didn’t get it so from then I wanted to work there. It’s amazing to be there now.
In non-Covid times how do you balance the distance?
I live in Surrey with my husband and a younger daughter who is 16. My three older children and five grandchildren all live in London. I have a flat in one of the colleges in Durham, so I stay up there some of the week. I have had a great time going to college dinners where you get to meet academics from different subjects and local people. Lots of people at Durham really care about giving back and widening participation. From the outside people might not realise that and I am very passionate about helping people who may not have had the best start in life. I realise how much work it takes to overcome that if you are not born into it.
I always felt I had a missing connection to the North East, I always wanted to live or work in the area because I wanted to find all this long-lost family. My Grandad is from Hartlepool with connections to Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle. Both his parents died in 1941 and he had seven brothers and sisters, but they all fell out when their parents died. I have now met one of my second cousins and we have become good friends, we go out for dinner in Newcastle.
You’ve been at Durham since 2018 – has your ambition to get more women in tech succeeded?
I have been in tech for over 20 years, a whole generation. Lots of things that I wanted to happen 20 years ago still haven’t happened. I’m not one to focus on the negatives though so while the percentage of women working in tech hasn’t changed from a statistical perspective, the whole conversation has changed so much from 20 years ago. When I set up BCS women in 1998 – the UK’s first online network for women in computer science, I thought I was connecting women but one of my male colleagues asked me why I was ghettoising myself. It’s indicative of that time. Attitudes have changed, although some people still think like that.
What about women who say, ‘Oh it’s too late for me?’ What’s your message to them?
It’s never too late. Particularly now. We have the internet and so many courses online that life should be about continual learning. I’m still learning, and I am in my 50s. Because we can work online you can keep working as long as you want and keep on earning your own income. Particularly for women, it’s important to be financially independent, if possible.
Tech Mums is a brilliant concept – has it achieved what you had hoped it would?
It’s definitely a work in progress. What I wanted to do was reach millions of mums around the world – we haven’t quite got there yet! We have got to hundreds of mums around the UK, which is good. We have been hampered all along by lack of funding and it’s quite weird how the not for profit charity sector is perceived in the UK. It’s very difficult to make anything happen. There seems to be a mindset in the UK that charities profits should make no money at all. How do you do anything if you don’t pay anyone to do anything? Capital One committed to giving us some funding three years ago and they have helped us make a massive step-change in what we are doing. That’s been incredible. Without them, we’d be limping along not able to do very much.
Has your tech background meant that working from home during lockdown has been easy for you? Or are you as over video calls as everyone else?
Aside from really missing hugging my grandkids, I have loved it! I really love my pre-lockdown life and job; I travelled internationally; talked to interesting people; travelled up and down the country most weeks, I loved all of it. What I didn’t really have was much time to sit and think about things. I was always off somewhere whereas being in lockdown has been wonderful for that! I don’t have to rush for a train, and I can do a bit of gardening and chat to my husband and daughter and spend more time chatting to my kids in the week on Houseparty. We have got into our routine, my husband does the washing, I clean, my daughter cooks a lovely meal from scratch every night. She missed doing her GCSEs. When she first found out she was quite traumatised, she had a bit of a wobble about all of the things you look forward to. Then she started to realise she might actually do better in her GCSEs without doing the exams!
Do you think Covid19 is going to see more businesses and employees becoming more reliant on technology and more open to new ways of working?
I hope so. We’re not going to go back to how it was before because companies have realised how much money they can save. Loads of us realised that 20 years ago. I normally try to work from home one day every two weeks and before I was at Durham I was at home writing a book, so I am quite used to working at home. I never understood why big companies wanted massive offices. Since Google Hangouts came about in 2013, I and many other colleagues have been doing it.
Often our academics and industry leaders seem to be out of reach but do you feel your background helps women to realise that so much is possible?
I really hope my background does show other women that they can achieve things. Pre-Covid, I was doing a lot of public speaking and my main message really is to anyone from a background where they weren’t brought up to be in power or succeed, we can all do it. It was mainly the need to earn money that made me focus on what I wanted to do. When we were living on practically no money at all that spurred me on to go to college. Being a single parent, I knew I would earn minimum wage if I went out to work. I realised education was the only way: I went to college, then uni and stayed on to do a PhD, not only because I wanted to do one but because it was flexible and I was able to work from home some of the time, and the money was three times what I was getting on a student grant. I knew that by getting a PhD I would be able to earn more money long term.
You’ve been described as a role model for women, who do you admire?
I really admire Dame Stephanie Shirley, one of the UK’s major tech pioneers – more than 50 years ago she had women, mainly mums, working from home, coding, writing top quality software like the Concorde back box flight recorder. That sounds like the future. She showed that could work all those years ago and yet most people in the UK don’t know who she is. I admire anyone championing diversity and championing women. Arlan Hamilton in the United States, who set up the Backstage Capital fund – she came from difficult circumstances. I always feel a kinship for people who have had a hard time then overcome it.
Do you think the message is getting through that people other than white men can create tech?
We are starting to realise now that we need diverse teams to create all sorts of things. If we don’t have diversity, then those products or services only serve that specific group of people. If we mainly have white males producing all the tech then it only meets their needs and in general not all of their needs – just a specific subset. If companies want to create products that are fit for purpose for all their users, they need diversity in who is creating and testing them. That’s obvious! It’s not rocket science. But why is it taking us so long for people to realise that? We are getting there in terms of companies who now want to hire diverse groups of people. I think some companies really get it and other people do it to tick boxes rather than understanding why it’s important. We are on the way there. But we’re not there yet.
North East favourites
I love walking along the river in Durham.
Harry’s Bar on Grey Street.
The architecture in Newcastle: the railway station, the bridges, St Nicholas Cathedral.
My daughter and I love going to the Metrocentre when she comes up to visit me.
For more information about Sue visit her website, here.
Check out Tech Mums, here.