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Sue Black: making change happen

On November 14th,  a good crowd of AWiSE and Lucy Cavendish members were entertained by Sue Black talking about her life and many achievements.  She is a wonderful example of how you can bring about change, not just in your own life, but for the benefit of others too.

Finding herself a single mum with three under-fives living in Tower Hamlets, she decided that she needed to get a qualification to provide an income for her family.  She started by doing a Maths access course where she was one of only two women, who came joint top of the class.  She followed this with a computing degree at the University of the South Bank – chosen as the nearest place to home so she could juggle childcare.  When she was asked to continue to PhD level, she admits she did not know what a PhD was.  She then followed an academic career in computing, becoming Head of Information and Software Systems at the University of Westminster.

Sue’s first step into making a difference was to set up BCSWomen, which she did to provide a forum for women in IT, who were often the only women in their department or at a conference, to interact and support each other.  On a visit to Bletchley Park, Sue was surprised to learn that over half of the war-time staff had been women.  So she started an oral history project to tell their story.  On discovering the funding crisis that Bletchley Park was facing, she started an online petition which she managed to get several heads of computing departments to sign. This was followed by a letter to The Times with 97 signatures which soon engaged media interest.  To keep this interest alive, Sue started a blog and experimented with using Twitter.  She admits that her initial reaction to Twitter was much as most people’s who can’t see the point of it. Persevering, she got Steven Fry to retweet one of her Tweets and got 5000 hits that day.  Bletchley Park now has Heritage Lottery funding and Sue is writing a crowdfunded book (the fastest one ever to be funded) about its history.

Sue now wants to focus on what she believes important and that includes breaking down the negative stereotypes people build about computing.  Her approach has been to give mums the chance to have hands-on training in a supportive environment with the belief that they will be able to change their family’s perception of IT. She ran an initial course at a school in Tower Hamlets last summer which included training on email and internet but then looked at apps, web design, social media and online security and finally Python and Raspberry Pi.  Feedback showed that the later session was the most popular, contrary to her colleagues’ expectations.  The women attending all grew in confidence with the difference also being noticed in their children by the school.

The plan is to repeat this training opportunity on a wider scale.  The Techmums website  allows individuals to sign up as a trainer, schools to sign up to host and mums to receive the training.  Needless to say, funds are needed to speed things up and donations can be made here.

Let’s help Sue spread the word and make this her next huge success !

Anne Clarke

Sue and Jenny

Sue and Jenny Koenig at dinner. Nice colour coordination, ladies!

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