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Oral-History:Gillian Lovegrove

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About Gillian Lovegrove

Gillian Lovegrove is an influential woman in computing at Northumbria University. She began her career at Cambridge where she earned a Masters in Science. At Cambridge, she worked at the Maths Lab and on EDSAC as part of the intellectual computing community; she was one of many women who worked at the Cambridge Maths Lab. She taught at several universities including Portsmouth and Southampton. She earned her PhD at Southampton where she taught for several years. She became a University Lecturer and later an Associate Dean at Staffordshire University and Head of Department and Dean at Northumbria University where her main subjects were Computing and Software Design. She is an Emeritus Professor at Northumbria University.

In this interview, Lovegrove talks about growing up and her initial interest in math and her years earning her degree and teaching at Southampton. She also provides her reflections on the field of computing and the role of women in the field.

About the Interview

GILLIAN LOVEGROVE: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 20 September 2001

Interview # 592 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Gillian Lovegrove, an oral history conducted in 2001 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Gillian Lovegrove
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 20 September 2001
PLACE: Gillian Lovegrove's Office at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle

[Notes courtesy of interviewer Janet Abbate]

Background and Education

Abbate:

This is an interview with Gillian Lovegrove on September 20th, 2001.

To start out with, can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Lovegrove:

I was born in 1942. I was brought up in Yorkshire. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Hull—Beverley and Hull—in East Yorkshire, and then I went to Cambridge University.

I went to a grammar school in Hull. It was a mixed boys’ and girls’ grammar school; it wasn’t just a girls-only. They were very keen on education, but they didn’t have the specialists, particularly on the science side: not enough of them. So they encouraged me to go into maths, which I was good at—though I wanted to go into languages, which I enjoyed! [laughs.] Anyway, they won, and my parents won, and I went into the maths side, but felt immediately starved of humanity, so to speak, and didn’t try very much at school when I had to specialize just in maths. We have this system here where you keep broad up to about the age of sixteen, and then you specialize. So I died a death as I specialized in the maths.

Abbate:

So you were good at maths, but didn’t enjoy it that much?

Lovegrove:

I quite enjoyed the maths, but I didn’t like applied maths, and I certainly didn’t like physics. So the pure maths, on the logic side: I did enjoy that; but that meant that two-thirds of the things I was doing were things that I didn’t get any thrill out of whatsoever.

And ironically, the teaching on the pure maths side, which was what I enjoyed, was very poor to begin with. So I basically didn’t work very much. I was very unhappy, really, in my sixth form.

Abbate:

So the three subjects were pure maths, applied maths, and physics?

Lovegrove:

Essentially, yes. It was called “double maths”: it was maths and further maths, but it was split up into two parts. It was split up into the pure and the applied, essentially, and the applied maths is very close to physics—and physics is dry as death! You know, it just didn’t appeal to me at all.

Abbate:

So your parents were encouraging you . . .

Lovegrove:

My parents conspired with the school to persuade me! [laughs.] Because my father was looking at all the kinds of jobs that people could get, and he knew that there were a lot more jobs in maths and science than there were in the arts. And I really wanted to do French, German, and as many Mediterranean languages as I could, and just be a translator—something like that—and see the world. And they persuaded me that there were far greater job opportunities in the other side.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

Lovegrove:

They were both teachers. One was a headmaster and the other one was a domestic science teacher: cooking, needlework, that kind of thing.

Abbate:

So they were encouraging you to have a career?

Lovegrove:

They were certainly encouraging me to go to a university, yes.

Abbate:

Did you have any brothers or sisters?

Lovegrove:

Yes, I had a brother, younger. And he went to university as well.

Abbate:

Did he also do anything technical?

Lovegrove:

He was encouraged to go into an engineering course, yes; so he did. He finished electronics and then became a teacher. So there was a very strong parental influence. “Influence”: forcing! [laughs.] Encouraging.

Abbate:

You went to the local . . .

Lovegrove:

Grammar schools. And then, because I was very intelligent, I was in a quick stream, so you actually finished the course a year early. I didn’t do terribly well in the maths and the physics, and so the intention was that I should repeat them the year after, which you could do; but you could also apply to Oxford and Cambridge, which I then did. The way that the entrance used to work in those days was that you took examinations, and Oxford’s exams were in November, and Cambridge exams were in March. So I did the Oxford exams, and got called up for interview, which was an enormous surprise to me; and when I got there, I had a straight talk from one of the tutors there, which absolutely riveted me and horrified me at the time, but actually I now see was a tremendous guide towards really the rest of my life. She said to me that the only reason I’d been brought here for interview was because I’d had such a fantastic write-up by my Headmaster; otherwise the level of my maths was just the same as the other hundred and twenty girls who had applied for places. She asked me also which was my first choice, Oxford or Cambridge; and I said, “Cambridge, but of course I would like to come to Oxford, having seen it.” But really she wasn’t interested, and I was absolutely affronted and horrified—but also determined that if I was this close to getting into Oxford, then maybe I would have a chance to get into Cambridge; and there were four months in between.

Abbate:

. . . to study?

Lovegrove:

To study. And I was saying to one of the people at Oxford, one of the girls from the first or second year, how much I would like to do extra study for the exam, but I didn’t know half the stuff that was on the papers; we just hadn’t covered it. We weren’t getting the teaching; they actually hadn’t found a replacement teacher at my school for all the pure-maths side. And this girl had come from a public school, and she gave me all her notes, and I studied them for four months—I just took the notes away—and I couldn’t believe it. The notes that she’d had from her school were so self-explanatory; teaching like I’d never seen taught before. It was fantastic! I just did it after school; I just went back and learned as much as I could, and then did the Cambridge exams, and got a place!

But it was because of that encounter at Oxford. At school, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting into either Oxford or Cambridge. It’s almost like a pattern: you think you haven’t got a chance of doing something, and then something gives you that glimpse of what might be possible, so you go for it—and then you get it. And then you look back and you think, “Well, why did nobody else really say to me, ‘You’ve got that chance’?” But then you realize that people around you can’t see that perspective, because they’ve never had it themselves; so you’re a pioneer, in the end.

I got to Cambridge, and I again found that maths . . . You did both pure and applied maths: pure maths was fine; it interested me; but applied maths just wasn’t, so I wasn’t in my right home subject area yet. I really enjoyed Cambridge, because it had masses of music; it had masses of sport; it had masses of men—they outnumbered us ten to one, and we had this obligation to go out with as many as we could! [laughs.] So I had a fantastic time, and worked as much as I could in between having a fantastic time, and survived it okay. On the way, I met several men—boyfriends; influences—some of whom showed me about computing, and I loved it.

Abbate:

And this was the early sixties at this point?

Lovegrove:

This was 1961 to ‘64. So this was about ‘63, ‘64 that they showed me programs. And I thought, really, “I love this! Gosh, you do it with your hands, and you work it out logically, and you get something; and then you correct it, and you have another go, and you stick it in a computer. This is just my thing! I love this!”

Abbate:

So someone just showed you this in their spare time? You weren’t taking it in a class or anything?

Lovegrove:

No, it wasn’t in a class. It was actually during a holiday. And the influence was—and of course, this is a pattern you often find—it’s somebody who’s older; it’s male, as it happens; and encourages you by saying, “You can do this. It’s not a problem to you; it’s not difficult. You can understand it.” And in my research in women in computing, I’ve found that that often is the influence: that there’s an elder brother, or an uncle or a father—it can be female as well, of course, but you don’t often come across that as much—who says, “It’s not difficult. It’s fun!” And you go and have a go.

So, when I finished my maths course: I loved Cambridge, and I wanted to stay there another year, because I didn’t want to leave the vicinity yet. I had three choices: I could do the diploma in statistics; the diploma in computing (both of which were like M.Sc.’s); or I could go into teaching. Well, I tried statistics, and it didn’t grab me. I couldn’t really do it. I loved the computing. I thought about the teaching, and I went for an interview at the teaching college, but I thought really the computing had more zizz, pizzazz: more excitement about it. When I went for the interview for the teaching, the woman there said to me, “Why do you want to go and do computing?” I said I wanted to teach eventually, but I thought I wanted to teach computing. “Why do you want to teach computing? Nobody’s going to teach computing. They aren’t going to have computers in schools or anything!” [laughs.] So I thought, “This isn’t my scene!” and I did the diploma in computing instead.

I then felt at home. This was where I wanted to be. This is what I wanted to work in. I loved it. The whole organization inside the computers; the way they organized the software; the logic of the software; the operating systems; the language translations; the hardware was also interesting—it helped me to find out where it all started and stopped; how it all worked. I just loved the whole organization thing.

Learning at Cambridge Maths Lab and Working on EDSAC

Abbate:

What was the content of the course at that point?

Lovegrove:

It was a typical kind of M.Sc. You had various units—modules—and then you had a dissertation. And the units were: in 1964 you had some numerical analysis to do, and apart from numerical analysis you had things like programming, of course, but you also had operating systems, and language translations, and you had the hardware. I can’t remember the detail. When you look at our courses here, you can see that original structure still existing: around it you’ve got some other exciting new stuff to do with the Web, or to do with HCI [human-computer interaction], or multimedia; but in a way they’re the frills around the main software engineering content. What they didn’t have in those days was business analysis, or systems design in that sense—not at Cambridge, anyway. Instead, they had more of the traditional university approach. But it was ahead of its time in that really it was to do with software engineering on big systems, and that was just thrilling to me.

During that diploma, I also rubbed shoulders with very influential people, very bright people; but the whole atmosphere in the Cambridge Maths Laboratory was very informal; there was no pomp and circumstance. You were rubbing shoulders with these big guys, and they were just like you. It was very like an American influence, actually. That whole laboratory had a feeling that we were equals, which is not typically British. You know: “Hey that’s a good idea. Let me give you my thoughts on so-and-so.” All equal sharing. No kind of “Well, you’re only a research student; I don’t want to know about you.” Nothing like that. And it was therefore a very exciting environment to be in.

Abbate:

And there were, as I recall, a number of women in that lab.

Lovegrove:

Yes, there were. Actually, the Cambridge Maths Lab still has a good number of women in it, I understand. We went to a reunion a couple of years ago. But yes, it had a good proportion of women. Probably—I can’t remember exactly: 30, 40 percent? Not so much the Professors and the main Lecturers—they were mainly men—but because of this equals atmosphere, you weren’t so much aware of that, because there were a lot of other women doing the programming and the organization and helping you on the course. So I was not aware of an overtly male atmosphere there at all. Maybe that was because I’d just got used to that in Cambridge. But I don’t think it was because of that. I think it was because I just got total respect and bringing-on just like any of the men did. I wasn’t aware of anything which wasn’t pro–me-as-an-individual, just like all the rest.

Abbate:

And this was the EDSAC you were working on?

Lovegrove:

Yes, it was its last year. 1964 to ‘65 was the last year of EDSAC. And then they moved to TITAN, which was like the ATLAS, that they made themselves.

I remember that as a tremendous year. Looking back on it, again, I don’t think I pushed myself forwards for a sufficiently stretching dissertation, but I wasn’t aware of that. I really wasn’t aware of what I could achieve. And I only became aware of it a bit late, when people started talking to me about what they saw me doing in my career, and I saw it through other people’s eyes. I still thought of myself as being this woman who had accidentally got in there and was one of the lesser people there. I see that as being partly through history, coming from a grammar school—a mixed grammar school—in Hull, not a public school. I didn’t think that I could achieve all of those things. And at Cambridge you were surrounded by so many brilliant people that you didn’t see yourself as being equal to them, so that it was some kind of privilege that you were there.

Abbate:

Like it was a mistake [that you got in].

Lovegrove:

[laughs.] It was a mistake: I felt that quite a lot, but I think that’s something personal to do with my own personal development as well, that my self-esteem was not very good; and I still struggle with that now. So the belief in myself wasn’t there, and I’d accidentally got on this course, and . . .

Looking back, I think I didn’t stretch myself perhaps as much as I might; but it didn’t really matter, because I had a different career path to go down. I then got a job at Portsmouth—it was Portsmouth College of Technology in those days, which later became Portsmouth Polytechnic, and then later became University of Portsmouth—as a Lecturer in computing, and for those times it was at a really high salary. I went down there, found that the computing was fairly elementary, and again, I didn’t feel I was in my right home; I was not being able to do as much high-level computing as I wanted. So after a couple of years there, I went to Southampton University and asked if I could enroll as a research student and do research part-time. They happened to be appointing a new professor there who had just come from the Cambridge Maths Lab that I had left, who knew me; so I started doing research under him, and after a year they invited me to apply for a lectureship—which actually I didn’t get, but I was given a research post in their Chemistry Department. Part of the intention of that was that I not only did work for them, but I also kept going on my own Ph.D.; and a year after that I got a lectureship at Southampton, and the year after that, that was made permanent. And they did give me a lot of time to do research.

Abbate:

Can I back up a second? So you had done a thesis or dissertation for the master’s degree . . .

Lovegrove:

More or less, yes, at Cambridge. It was called a “diploma.” They don’t give you other kinds of master’s at Cambridge. Because you get your M.A. automatically, they don’t have master’s as such, so they call them “diplomas,” but essentially it’s like a master’s.

Abbate:

What was the subject of that?

Lovegrove:

Its official title was “Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computation.” Essentially it was numerical analysis and computing.

Learning and Teaching at Southampton

Abbate:

And your Ph.D. dissertation: Was that . . .

Lovegrove:

The dissertation I did part-time at Southampton. That was essentially on a kind of modular operating system with some real-time requirements, on a small computer. You were doing real-time reorganizing the operating system, taking real-time requirements from spectrometers and a plotter, and you were trying to do it in such a way that it was almost getting like object-oriented computing. You weren’t doing that yet; it wasn’t quite so modular; but it was trying to do it in separate modules, which could be, of themselves, self-contained and more easily updated and changed. So you were moving towards objects, but it was rather early to use that kind of concept.

Abbate:

Was operating systems your main area of interest at that point?

Lovegrove:

Yes. Again it was to do with organization: I love organizing things, and I did enjoy that. We got into that gradually, but that really fired me up, to have good working and good organization—which is how I run this department! [laughs.]

Abbate:

So the connection with the chemistry is that that was the application for this operating system?

Lovegrove:

Well yes, that’s where I got the Research Fellowship. Yes, that was a good application for it.

Abbate:

And so it was their instruments and lab work providing the data?

Lovegrove:

It was a little minicomputer, yes.

Abbate:

So you got the Ph.D. in the late sixties?

Lovegrove:

No. I took the job in Southampton in 1968, and I had one year as a Research Fellow and then two years as a Lecturer, so that brought us to 1971. I then became pregnant. I had intended to make more solid my career before I became pregnant and actually we had bought a house which was further away from Southampton, so it was all very inconvenient; which meant that it was going to be far more difficult for me to try and have a family and continue the career. So I gave up the career. I hadn’t finished the Ph.D. at that time, because I’d only enrolled around about 1967 or ‘68. I did want to finish the Ph.D., so I actually submitted it a year after that, in 1972. Then I had the corrections, but became pregnant again, so I finally submitted it in 1974; so I got it in ‘74.

Again, it’s this achievement thing: you can achieve it, but you have to do it by small stages. All that time I was finishing that Ph.D., I didn’t see it as a big thing, what I was doing. I kept thinking, “Why can’t I do it perfectly the first time?” and “Why am I so slow submitting these changes?”—instead of seeing it in the perspective of, “This is a fantastic achievement, because you’ve got two young, small children at home, and even to think about finishing your Ph.D. and focusing on that is something very good!” I didn’t see it like that; I just saw that I really wasn’t being good enough. So I felt very inadequate to it; but I was interested in teaching, and teaching computing. I went on to have three children, and I was doing bits of teaching at Portsmouth or at Southampton from time to time, but not really working very much, just odd bits.

Then, in 1980, Southampton approached me again and said, would I apply for a lectureship there? And I got a temporary lectureship, which was confirmed the following year into a permanent lectureship. That was very scary. I then took on full-time work when I had three small children: the youngest one was two and a half, and the others were seven and eight. I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was a tremendous struggle keeping going on a daily basis. There was just so much to do. It wasn’t that they overworked me; it was just that for anybody going back, you just do not realize how much everything has changed in nine years: it was already nine years. And on top of trying to keep the family going, that was really, really tough. Those first six months, I think, were one of the toughest periods I’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, it took two or three years before I felt on my feet again. I was learning a tremendous lot, because I was helping teaching, and being given some notes, and then bringing myself on. At that time, they were losing some staff, so I was actually moving around from course to course—which was a tremendous and hard learning curve for me, but it’s also very valuable. Naturally enough, I wasn’t regarded as being a researcher or anything special in the group I was in, because I was on this upward learning curve, and I don’t think there was a full appreciation of just how tough that was. I didn’t know myself, to be honest, so I’m not blaming anybody.

During the years coming up to my divorce in 1987, I was getting more and more knowledgeable about myself; because I was having to deal with a very difficult situation, I was reading a lot of books about self-development. In 1987 I was 45 years old, and I count that as the beginning of the rest of my life. Everything changed. I then had far more control over my own destiny, if you like, because I could decide if I had people in to help me at home, and how I ran the home, how I organized my work life. And of course, I had this huge need to prove myself. I wanted to do well in my career. I had three boys; I wanted the boys to be well brought up, but I wanted my own career as well. I talked about it with them all the time, and they understood that I needed to do this; but they in their turn were also trying to acclimatize to this new situation.

I continued on in my career, and started doing a lot more research. I had a happy mind; I could work longer hours. I didn’t spend longer working hours at the university; I came back home usually around tea time, but then I would work at home in the evenings and in the weekends.

Abbate:

So it was possible to work at home?

Lovegrove:

Yes, that’s right. At first we had an au pair, and then we had somebody who helped five days a week in the home.

Abbate:

And did you have a terminal at home? Or did you not need access to the computer?

Lovegrove:

We had a BBC micro, which you could do some email from.

Abbate:

I’ve heard of those!

Reflecting on Personal Life

Lovegrove:

It was very limited in what it could do at home. But there was plenty of other preparation that you could do.

Unfortunately, at the same time, I had other tragedies happening at home. My mother died of cancer the year after I got divorced, and my father was diagnosed with having Parkinson’s disease. These had enormous effects upon me, in my self-confidence, in that I had so many things going on. I actually had difficulty lecturing and talking in public, and that kind of thing. This was around 1986, ‘87, ‘88. It was just so shattering, all of it; but gradually the self-confidence came back later on after that, and I was able to lecture more normally. But again, this feeling of not being equal to the occasion was huge, because I actually wasn’t equal to the occasion, because I had so much going on. And I was trying to. I knew inside myself that I was not valued for what I could be—of course I wasn’t being valued for what I could be, because it couldn’t come out! But I was very frustrated, because I knew that there was a person in here that had all this great history behind them, who could do great stuff; but I couldn’t get the right kind of situation to get it out.

Abbate:

How did you cope with balancing your various family responsibilities with your work? Did you have any help with that?

Lovegrove:

I had had help from my parents during the years of the failing marriage, and then I had help at home, in the house. I had various friends: women who were trying to develop themselves through similar difficult circumstances. They were my main allies. I had a colleague at work who used some words like, “You don’t deserve this. You shouldn’t be in this situation.” She also gave me an insight into the right as a woman to be an equal to a man, where I was actually still under it, and not able to see that. So she influenced me in two ways. This made me think, “No, I can get out of this situation, if only I try a little harder.” And I’m very, very stubborn and determined, and I wanted to persist at that; so that did influence me to try to get out of these situations.

But if we look back at all that time, what that has given to me is an enormous knowledge of people, and that people can grow and learn. In my department here, I know that I’ve now got eighty-odd people (it’s grown this term), each of whom I actually care about and want them to gain satisfaction from their work position. I will support each one of those in what they want to do as much as I am able, and I try to give each one of those that impression. Now obviously, it doesn’t always succeed. You can’t do that. But I am interested in each as an individual. And if they go down—if they don’t do as well in something—I have to go into that, but I will always try and approach it with, “Well, we’re in this situation now, so let’s get out of it. How do we do it? And what do we build for the future?” Because I have been there. So I’ll never give up on anybody. I’ll always try to give them the next step, because I have been the person at the bottom so much myself.

Abbate:

Now, obviously you were able to advance in the department; I guess after the divorce. How did that happen?

Working on Advancing Career at Southampton

Lovegrove:

Well, when I was at Southampton: from 1987, when the divorce happened, I then tried to get as much research as I could going.

Abbate:

Because that was the way to . . .

Lovegrove:

Because that was the way for advancement at Southampton. And I did advance reasonably quickly, but I got frustrated, because I had this belief in myself that I could achieve more, and I really wasn’t prepared to go down the track that Southampton laid out for me. That is to say that to become a Senior Lecturer, you needed to have a certain number of kinds of top publications, and you needed to have research groups and so on; and if you ever wanted to be a Professor, you had to have far, far more of those. Although I felt that I could achieve that, down that research route, it was going to be too slow, because I was working from very much a starting position in 1987. And there were other possibilities, which were in the “new universities.”

It got so that by 1991, after four years from being divorced, I had a reasonably good research record; I was very knowledgeable about courses and accreditation; and I was feeling frustrated, because I wanted to get there faster than the people in the department were aware that I wanted to do! [laughs.] And in my view, I wasn’t getting the support I deserved in the way of equipment. I had asked for a machine—a new computer—and it was refused; and yet some Teaching Fellow somewhere was given one, and I hadn’t been given one. I felt as if I was being overlooked. I felt it was poor management, if you like, in that they weren’t aware of all of the people, and they weren’t doing appraisals and so on. But it was also being overlooked. I also wasn’t approaching things in the right way to make my case well heard. I realize that now, but I didn’t realize it at the time: that you need to be positively assertive. Instead of that, I was being reactively negative.

But I was very frustrated, so I decided that I would apply for Heads’ posts in two new universities. Much to my amazement, both universities were very interested, and I was offered an appointment at one, and the other one immediately got on the phone and said “No no no, come to us!” I’d never realized that I was that attractive to them; it was partly because of my research and “old university” experience, but it was also partly because of all the contacts that I had and the things that I was doing. But I didn’t know that! I went for the bigger one, because again, I wasn’t sure of myself, and I thought that by being a Head amongst other Heads, I could actually learn faster from them about how to do things, and not quite be so exposed as being a single Head. So I went for the bigger school, which was at Staffordshire University, as a Head of Information Systems.

Abbate:

Now, pardon my ignorance, but I’m not sure what a Head actually designates.

Lovegrove:

Yes, it’s a good question. Across the country you’ve got varying sizes of departments: so you might have a Head of Computing, who is in charge of only twenty, twenty-five, thirty, or even fewer people, and then you’d have one Head of Department over that number of people.

Abbate:

So the Department Chair would be the Head of the Department?

Lovegrove:

Possibly, but there might also be other professors.

Abbate:

But there’s people below?

Lovegrove:

Yes. So you’d have Principal Lecturers, as they call them in the new universities.

Abbate:

And there could be several Heads in the department?

Lovegrove:

It’s a good question, because each university’s organized slightly differently. If you had a department of around twenty or thirty, you’d have one Head of Computing. You might then have a Head of Engineering; you might have a Head of Information Systems; a Head of Biological Sciences, or something; and then you might have a Dean on top of the lot. In a bigger setup, which there was at Staffordshire, you actually had a Dean at the Head of the School of Computing; and then you had Head of Information Systems; Head of Software Engineering; Head of Computer Science; Head of Mathematics; and Head of another campus. So, those in some universities might have been Head of subject division status, which would have been Principal Lecturer status; but at Staffordshire, they were actually on the management spine and part of the management, so the two that I applied for were both on the management spine. They were not Principal Lecturers; it was above that. So I was jumping two points, if you like: I was missing the Senior Lecturer / Principal Lecturer one and I was going straight to the next one, which was the Head of a department level.

Abbate:

And what were you Head of?

Lovegrove:

Information Systems. And that was at Staffordshire in this bigger setup. That did enable me to learn a lot from the people around me. I was there from 1992 until 1999, and I found that I’d learned a lot from the Dean and the way that he brought people on and encouraged people to learn about management. But I also learned an awful lot about how not to do things. So when I left to come here [to University of Northumbria], I brought with me an awful lot of experience about not only integrating your top people, but also about how to integrate into a whole community, and keep a lot of information flowing, and try to make sure each person is being valued properly.

Arriving at Northumbria, Reflections on the University

Abbate:

And how did you end up coming here to Northumbria?

Lovegrove:

Well, at Staffordshire, the Dean was appointed as a Pro Vice Chancellor at another university, and the Dean position became vacant. I applied for that, but I didn’t get it; but I was sufficiently close to getting it—I was actually found appointable—that it reassured me that I could be doing better things somewhere else. And since I’m now getting on in life, I really didn’t want to let that go; I wanted to do something about it as soon as possible. Northumbria came up very quickly; I was head-hunted to come here. It was an increase in salary—not a huge increase, but it was some increase in salary, even though it was actually moving down from an Associate Dean status into a Head of School status. But I liked the atmosphere here, and it has a good reputation, and I wanted a change of scene. So, decided I would go for it, really because I felt, “Well, I can be my own Head at last; and I’ve got a new area where I can live and work; it sounds fun. So I’d like to do this.” And also because I could do it easily, I thought [laughs], because I’d learned all this stuff; and I thought I had more than enough experience to be the Head of a department of around fifty, as it was then, two years ago.

I came here and I found a department that was full of people with masses of ideas, but rather suppressed—repressed—having not been in the right kind of atmosphere before. What it’s been like: it’s like opening lots and lots of people up to new possibilities, and then after about a year, having all these bouncing Tiggers who want to do different things—so excited with all the possibilities! And then organizing the groups gradually even more coherently—in my view, anyway, because obviously it’s being run how I want it. But they are now working with each other in an unusually successful way. I’ve been teaching them about overlapping circles and communication, and about men working side-by-side with men, which doesn’t come naturally to them; so I’ve been talking to them. Men don’t work very easily in teams. If I have a team of men and I say, “Person one, you do this; person two do that; person three do that; person four do that”: they work brilliantly—independently—and they’ll come back. But if you say, normally, to a group of men, “I’d like you to work on these ideas; go and do it”: it doesn’t work. Not in the original group; it does work now, but it didn’t, because it was alien to them before. They had been used to defending their own territory and making themselves look better than the next guy—fight, fight, fight, all the way.

Abbate:

Was it different if it was a mixed group, or all women?

Lovegrove:

Yes, but we have very few women. We don’t have many women here who have the ability to synergize groups around them to work together. I don’t want to knock the women that we have here; they hadn’t been in an environment where you could do that anyway; but also, of their natures, when they first came, they were not of that type. They were survivors in an alien atmosphere, and they had survived by fighting their own corners hard, and you could see that. They have been the slowest ones to come around. They’ve found it difficult with me, quite a number of them, because their old boundaries and their old ways of establishing themselves were no longer there, and they didn’t know what their new environment was then. How did they score well in this new environment? They didn’t know that. I’ve tried talking to them about what the new scoring, if you like, is: you know, to do with self-progression and working with other people and so on; and there is beginning to be some progress now, at the end of two years. We’ve also brought some more women into the department, so I’m hoping for better things. But that’s been really disappointing and tough for me. I’ve been very sad about that.

Abbate:

Is it hard to recruit women?

Lovegrove:

Yes.

Abbate:

There’s just not a big pool out there?

Lovegrove:

No. Obviously, as you can imagine, on my side, I will choose the best person for what I want. I’m certainly not anti-women, but neither am I going to give them a chance above the men that I need, because I just don’t think like that. It isn’t conscious; I’m just looking for the kinds of people who will work well here. Sometimes they’re women and sometimes they’re men. I will try and bring on the women. I will try, probably a little bit harder, with each of them; but we’ve got some tough cases here who don’t understand this, and they’re very, very fearful, and do not believe that I am doing that—which has been hard for me.

I think it’s unusually bad here. I mean, it was never like that at Staffordshire. In Information Systems in Staffordshire I had quite a lot of women. I had only one woman, I think, who reacted in that way in the whole of Staffordshire University. But I’ve got two or three here who are finding it hard. I think it’s just chance—just chance and the old environment, where they’re survivors. But I know we’ll get there in the end, because they’ll gradually see what’s being done, and they’ll gradually believe it. But it’s taking a lot longer than I want to, and that’s very sad.

Abbate:

Have you had any problems from men not wanting to have a female Head?

Lovegrove:

Much, much less than I imagined. Virtually no problem inside the school. I’m just trying to think: have I had any problem inside the school? I don’t think there’s any problems inside the school; I can’t think of any. [laughs.] It’s been rather more difficult, I think, at the equal-Heads level in my faculty—possibly; but it may just be that that’s associated with my now leading the biggest and most advancing school, and therefore they feel threatened.

There is a bit of being taken for granted and ignored—this invisibility.

Abbate:

At the Head level?

Lovegrove:

At the Head and with the Dean. The Dean is a lovely guy, but to begin with, there was a little bit of invisibility, in that he’d got his big other powerful Heads, and he expected to kowtow to them—he’s a gentle guy. He continued to kowtow to them, and couldn’t understand why I kept popping my head up and saying, “No, no way; you can’t do that! You’ve got to give me more resources!”—which he thought was not the game. [laughs.] However, in fairness, what I have had is enormous support from the level above him, at the Deputy Vice Chancellor level: two men, both extremely supportive, and not because I’m a woman, just because I’m running the department well and they’re pleased to see it. So, enormous support from there.

So in general, this university has given me far more support as a woman than Staffordshire University did. It was really tough there; it was very much macho cliques. The Dean tried to get it not to be that way, but he had a group of people—men—there, who just couldn’t be brought on board [laughs], and were so threatened by my new thinking: all this “empowerment” stuff and bringing on Principal Lecturers, and suggesting that what they were doing was less than perfect, they just couldn’t take. And it was less than perfect. The quality measures in the School of Computing were poor.

Reflections on Women in Computing

Abbate:

Did you ever feel that being a woman prevented you from getting equal access to promotions or training or other sort of perks?

Lovegrove:

At Staffordshire, under the Dean, access to training: No. He was extremely good. I didn’t feel that at all. As regards promotion within Staffordshire, and promotion inside Southampton, then in all fairness, I would say “yes.”

Abbate:

Do you still have time to do research?

Lovegrove:

Only a little bit. Yes. Not as much as I would want to. I have a Research Fellow here, who is hoping to get research started with me, that I’ve appointed.

Abbate:

Is that still in operating systems?

Lovegrove:

No, it will be more on the object-oriented side, which is where I was working at Southampton in the end: components and architectures; all of that advancement.

Abbate:

Do you find that women end up in certain specialties of computer science?

Lovegrove:

I think they tend to go more on the soft side and the information systems side.

Abbate:

The “soft side” meaning software?

Lovegrove:

Information systems, yes. More people-oriented stuff. If you look at the number of women who are being recruited in the different areas, then the harder computer science will attract less women. Software engineering attracts less women as well. But the software side of things—the HCI, the multimedia, the information systems, the databases: there tend to be more women around that.

Abbate:

So, that’s more applied?

Lovegrove:

Yes. And it’s got people in it.

Abbate:

That’s the “soft” aspect of it.

Lovegrove:

Yes, that’s right. And of course, my work also has gradually moved. I did start off at the hard end, with the operating systems, and nearer to the machinery; but I’m in my element now, and very happy. And you can see that in the bigger scale, you can see me moving into the people side of things, the human relationships and how people work together, which is what I was interested in when I was at school doing languages. So I’ve moved more into the things I want to be in—that is, more on the softer side—but upholding all of this subject area, which is one that I’ve always really enjoyed. So I’ve got the best combination now, because I’m working with the people, but I’ve got the technical knowledge and skills as well.

Abbate:

So it’s not one or the other; it’s really combining them.

Lovegrove:

It’s really combining them, yes.

Abbate:

What do you find most satisfying about computing?

Lovegrove:

About computing as opposed to the people thing?

Abbate:

Well, I mean your work with computers, over time. What would you say you’ve gotten the most satisfaction from?

Lovegrove:

It is with the software; it is with the writing, the programming; and it’s the way of organizing those programming systems to work well together, so that you have it logically working as near to perfectly as you can, but complexity within that. That interested me in the operating systems; interested me at Cambridge, when they were doing the TITAN operating system; and interests me now—but now it’s actually not working with bits of software; it’s working with people who are doing that, working together! So it’s to do with small groups of things working things through: how you get the communications between the groups.

Abbate:

Now, obviously the field of computing has changed greatly since you started. What strikes you the most about the way it’s changed?

Lovegrove:

There are two things, I think, that strike you. One is how much it has mushroomed; it’s just got so huge. The other thing that strikes is how much the fundamental core of it all is to do with the analysis of what you need, and then the designing of it, and then the implementation of it. So that remains: that simple software engineering theme is integral to the whole thing.

I can also see it from the perspective of having been involved in designing software that just upheld numerical analysis, and then started to uphold simple computer systems, and then through to very large computer systems, and then all of the applications, and the application areas. The interesting thing then is slightly different from what you’re asking, really, but it’s perception by the outside world. That is something that I’ve been doing rather more work on, recently: the image of computing; how it is perceived by other professions, by other institutions, by parents, by the students who want to come here to work, and all of that. Because it has moved; it has moved from being to do with simple logic and simple programming of that logic to achieve an application, right through to now, where you’ve got to do the analysis, and therefore you’ve got to talk to the people to find out what they need, and then anticipating what they need as well, and all of that, in this bigger area of computing. So it is no longer a science; neither is it an engineering; it is a subject in its own right, which has links with psychology and all sorts of other areas besides maths and engineering and science.

Abbate:

And you think the public perception has changed?

Lovegrove:

No, I think the public hasn’t a clue what we do, in general! They think we are IT application writers, because that’s all they see, most of them. A load of parents, and a load of people in the university, and loads of politicians: all they see are the applications, and they think we write the applications and that’s all we do. The bigger science underneath that—which is essential for bigger systems—and the new kinds of products that come along are unknown to them. So we are that integral base, but we’re also the applications.

The other interesting thing is the way that people can come into the profession not trained at all, or half-trained, and still contribute to this huge computing area; and yet how do you get them eventually to have the whole education, so that they are well-placed to advance in new areas? I find that fascinating, and it’s very pertinent to what I do on the political scene in London, in trying to promote the image of computing and point out how we could do more if we had more flexible salary systems.

Abbate:

So are you lobbying for change of some kind?

Lovegrove:

Yes, but we are not entirely sure at the moment what change we actually want to bring about. But we feel that there are more possibilities, if we knew what they were. Of course, when I lobby, I don’t say we don’t know what they are; but I am aware that we don’t know entirely what they are, and part of all this is a road on which to discover what they are as we gather more information and focus our thinking. We’re a very young profession, really, and we haven’t got a history of thinking about ourselves and where we are placed and what we should be doing, and how government can help us or industry can help us. There’s an awful lot of work to do. I’m finding out also that in the companies—what are they doing with IT, and where are they placed, and how can we fit with that?

If they are saying publicly that we’re not producing the graduates that they want, it’s worth looking into that, and finding out of course what they think they do want—but also going behind that and finding out what kind of messes they are in, in that they don’t really know what they want—because we’re getting mixed messages. All that is a fascinating picture, and that’s what I’m only starting on; but it’s going to be lovely work in the future, finding out more about that, and all these questions to be answered. I enjoy that, because I like having a full perspective on things, where you can bring in experience to see which ways you should be going. And we haven’t got enough of that. There are a very few people—I don’t know really whether there’s anybody very much—who has got that whole big picture; so it’s worth working on.

Abbate:

Are you active in any professional societies?

Lovegrove:

I have been Chair of the Professors and Heads of Computing for the last two years. That’s all the Professors and Heads in the academic departments.

[DISC 2]

Abbate:

Do you think the field of computing has become more open to women over time? More accessible or appealing to women? Or less?

Lovegrove:

I think the Internet is actually doing us some good. I suspect that we’re getting more people in on the Information Systems—the softer end—than we are on the harder end.

But I’m also quite interested in looking at the biological differences between the way that men’s brains and women’s brains are organized, and therefore their aptitudes and enjoyments of particular types of jobs. Some of that kind of research has shown that there are some women who—I shall probably not get this right—whose mothers when they were pregnant were exposed to a particular rush of one hormone more than another, like testosterone or something, who would therefore tend to produce women who are more mathematically or scientifically oriented in their thinking: so they get more pleasure from doing that of activity, and are also better at it. There’s scientific evidence to show that. I think that my experience, and the women that I have met, seems to bear out that kind of a pattern—in which case, it isn’t just the image of computing and sociological reasons that cause women not to get into the harder end of computing. Certainly there are huge social factors, which are much, much bigger than these smaller biological factors, so really I think . . . We could, of course, increase the number of women coming into all the areas of computing by having better knowledge out there—in the parents of the students, and the students themselves, and the professions—and a more pro-women environment in general; so you’d up it all over—but I don’t you’d ever get fifty percent on the harder side, the computer science side. What would be interesting would be to see whether that kind of theorizing fits with what you’re discovering in some countries, where students are going into computing in general in fifty-percent numbers. What would be interesting would be to find out whether they gravitate towards the more human-oriented end and away from the more scientific end, and whether that is due to biological things or whether it’s due to sociological things. I don’t have that answer, but I have the suspicion that biology is a smaller effect, but the bigger effect is the sociological effect: the environment.

Abbate:

So you think mathematical aptitude is definitely required for going into computing?

Lovegrove:

No. Well, I think—when you say “mathematical,” in the sense of good organization: I think good organization and a good degree of logic is needed. But I think that you can have people like that who don’t actually do well in maths.

Abbate:

Well, I’m trying to follow up on what you had said before, that men have more—it’s mathematics ability that they have? Or logical ability?

Lovegrove:

It’s the ability they have to abstract, and to just think about one line of thinking at one time, as well, which is a more male phenomenon.

Abbate:

That’s the trait that is gender-linked and that you think is important for computing?

Lovegrove:

It’s a mixture, isn’t it? It’s a mixture of what they’re interested in, what they get pleasure from, what fits with the other people that they’re working with. So it is a very complex picture.

I just suspect that we’ll never reach fifty percent right across the board. I think we could have the information systems end—the softer end—where you had more women than men, in the groupings and in the working; but I suspect that you’ll find that the harder end, the computer science and the software engineering, that you’ll actually have always a disparity there—but not as much as it is at the moment. I mean, at the moment, in the universities it’s something like ten percent!

Abbate:

[Ten percent] women in the harder end?

Lovegrove:

Yes. It’s really low!

Abbate:

Now, is that a status distinction, to call one side “harder” and the other “softer”? Is there more respect for the “harder” side?

Lovegrove:

Well, I don’t know where that terminology has come from, but “soft” has been used in respect of human things, and “harder” has been in respect of engineering things. That’s just . . . I mean, it could be both, couldn’t it? Humans are soft, machines are hard; mathematics is hard for a lot of people, writing essays is soft and therefore easier. You know, there’s a sort of mixture between these two all the way along. Writing essays is said to be easier—but if you’re writing the essays, you know it’s not. But the “hard”-oriented people think that writing essays is easy. The people who are mathematically oriented feel that they could score a hundred percent on every bit along the scale, and that’s to do with their ability to think mathematically; they don’t appreciate that writing an essay is a very hard thing to do, and that you score points, but differently.

Abbate:

I’m just wondering if there’s more—because it is a slippery distinction—if there’s a sense that there’s more status attached to [the hard end].

Lovegrove:

I think there’s always been more status attached to mathematical things. Have you not noticed that? You know, going back: everybody has thought a mathematician was a slightly weird kind of person, but definitely to be respected, somewhat like a doctor or a lawyer.

Abbate:

There are quite a few women in mathematics . . .

Lovegrove:

Yes, there are. Yes: thirty, thirty-five percent.

Abbate:

. . . which is one of the puzzles. I mean, there are so many in math, [but not many in computer science].

Lovegrove:

But you are slightly odd as a woman, being a mathematician. Society regards you as being slightly unusual, if you are a good mathematician. If you are a Cambridge mathematician, then you’re even weirder! [both laugh.] If you are a Cambridge mathematician who plays hockey, then you are definitely beyond the pale! [laughs.]

Abbate:

You wouldn’t be speaking from personal experience? [both laugh.]

Lovegrove:

There is an association with that, on the female side; I think there is always that. There is that judgment from the outside: if you are a woman doing an unusually more male job (in their view), then you are slightly weird. Probably with a load of respect, but also, “Keep your distance. I don’t think I quite want to be associated with you.” [laughs.]

I don’t think computing has quite got that image, though, now. I think that, yes, people think, “They’re different,” but there is also a knowledge of it, through the Internet and everything; I think the image of computing in people’s view is beginning to change a bit, and that’s for better. So therefore I think we’ll see more women coming in, gradually.

Abbate:

Do you think the students are more business-oriented since the Internet boom?

Lovegrove:

I think students have always been more business-oriented; always. So I don’t think that has changed. I think that the Internet has caused more people to be interested in computing, perhaps more than business. So in a way, I think the Internet has helped more computing than business.

Abbate:

But I mean, they don’t come in thinking, “Well, I’ll be a millionaire if I learn computing”?

Lovegrove:

Well, I think there is another factor there. You know, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, the status of being a good electronic engineer, or doing that at university, was really very high, and they were getting masses of students wanting to go into that. That has now slumped right back, and the status of being a computing person is beginning to go up. The status of being in business has always been very good. When engineering started to drop, business went up a lot and computing didn’t go up as much; and that was because people are far more materially oriented and their decisions are based on how big a salary you could get.

I think that that has steadied out, but remained fairly high, but there’s now, in society generally, a little bit more of the human element coming back in again, so business has dropped slightly and computing is increasing. I don’t think it’ll increase long term; I think it’s just a temporary thing. I think it’ll go back again—people thinking they can make careers and get a lot of money.

Abbate:

Thinking back to what you’ve told me, it seems like there have been several people who were important in encouraging you at various points. Are there any other people that you’ve considered either role models to emulate or mentors who encouraged you? How important was that?

Lovegrove:

Yes, I think all the way along the line you’re looking for good role models. There haven’t been many women amongst them; they have been mainly men: well-balanced men who have seen a wider perspective and been encouraging. I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think there are many well-balanced women at the top in professions—in computing—that I come across.

Abbate:

“Well-balanced” in terms of work and other aspects of life?

Lovegrove:

Yes. Same as I would find in some men. You don’t find it in all men, but you do find some men. I think there are fewer women of that type that have that balance—that I’ve come across, anyway.

Abbate:

Any idea why?

Lovegrove:

No, I haven’t really thought about that very much. The ones at the top always seem to be intensely busy and never have time, whereas I’ve found some men at the top who have taken time, who have helped. You come across some women of the Queen Bee variety, who seemingly don’t want to know about younger women underneath them, but it could be just that they’re very, very busy. I don’t know.

Going on another theme (and I don’t know whether this has anything to do with it or not): women in our profession who want to succeed have actually got to be quite focused and quite determined to succeed in a slightly alien atmosphere. They normally have got alien atmospheres around them, and that produces a breed of women who are more focused; they work harder than the men around them—and they’re the ones you see. The ones who don’t make it, who are probably these more well-rounded women, have been lost—some of them—along their way there. And so what you get are the tougher groups, and they therefore are not perhaps quite as good at bringing other women on—just by definition, because they’re more focused about how they get further up.

Abbate:

Or they might not make good role models, if you don’t want a one-sided life.

Lovegrove:

Yes.

Also, I’m not quite sure whether I am typical. You see, I had this unusual upbringing, in that I was very interested in people and languages and things, and kind of got into the computing by a side route. Therefore, by nature, I’m very interested in the human and the learning and the soft development, because it’s helped me. I’m very interested in that, and therefore I would want to bring on women who I see coming up to me for any kind of help. The average woman probably doesn’t have that kind of history, and has been perhaps more computer-oriented than I am. Maybe I am a little bit unusual. I don’t mean that I’m unique, because I’m sure there are lots of women who have these different abilities; but I think it’s perhaps a little bit unusual. And I have this tenaciousness to hang on despite all, and that has given me a much greater appreciation and acknowledgment of what happened to me, and therefore I feel some kind of obligation to wish to help people who are developing themselves; whereas women who are more focused still on advancing themselves still seem to be looking up: “Where am I going on the next step, and the next step?” Or maybe those are just the women that I come across, and I don’t actually come across the other ones who are more settled. There aren’t all that many Heads and Professors—female—in computing; the proportion is relatively small. In our group of Professors and Heads of Computing, I don’t know what the proportion is, but I would imagine it’s around ten percent; and in our true Professors, it’ll be smaller than that, probably around seven percent. So you haven’t got a great many of them to actually compare yourself with. Very few of those have taken nine years out or so, having children; they’ve normally stayed in their careers. So it’s very hard; I can find one or two who’ve had similar histories to me, but not many. So I don’t really know how to judge these other women.

Advice for Women in Computing

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking of going into computing?

Lovegrove:

Yes, I think it’s an excellent career, because you’ve got a whole range of possibilities; and you must find your own niche, your own level, where you think, “This is my home. I’m comfortable here. This is where I want to work.” Wherever it is, from the very much more technical side right down to the more dealing-with-humans side. And it’s tremendous because there are always new opportunities. If you’ve had a downer in your career, for any reason—personal or otherwise—then in computing there always new opportunities, and your past education is there to prop you up, so that you can go on ahead. So you can step out; you can step back; it will be tough for a while, but there will be more opportunities, because they’re always expanding. If you are emotionally stable, mature, able to carry things, have good, normal people skills and intelligence and an interest in your subject, there’s always more possibilities for the future. It’s a tremendous area for development, and it keeps you intellectually stimulated.

So: find the position where you want to be, where it is your home; where you’re most comfortable and you can work in. I say to my guys here, “What fires you up? Have you gotten into the place that you get fired up in?” And then, just never think that it isn’t possible. Step back, look at it again, and find a new position.

And hopefully of course, they’ll all have a manager who’ll actually help them achieve that! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Well, great! Thank you very much!


  • At the time of this interview, Gillian Lovegrove was Head of the School of Computing and Mathematics; in 2002 she became Dean of the School of Informatics.