International Women's Day - why we need to reach girls before negative perceptions of a tech career take root

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett March 7, 2019
Summary:
Getting girls enthused about a career in tech needs to start young.

Coding Fri club 2
The problem is alarming -  young people – especially young women - just don’t seem to have much interest in studying technology and acquiring the requisite skills to get one of these jobs. This has led to a worrying shortfall in digital experts and an 80:20 male to female ratio in the IT industry.

There is not one single solution to addressing this problem – the consensus is that it will take a combination of factors: highlighting more relatable role models for women in tech; overcoming the perception that computing is too difficult or ‘technical’; ensuring women in the workplace have mentors and support networks; achieving pay parity; and abolishing unconscious bias and imposter syndrome.

But one of the most vital elements is reaching girls at a young age through schemes like coding clubs and workplace visits, before they have absorbed a negative perception of technology. And it can’t just be left to schools and education departments to ensure this happens, as Alicia Skubick, marketing director at Intuit QuickBooks UK, notes:

It is essential that businesses do their bit to help tackle the digital skills shortage. Digitisation is only going to grow more important across our everyday lives as technology continues to advance more and more rapidly. It cannot be that the skills and ability to understand and develop this technology sit predominantly with just one section of the population.

To help redress the gender balance in technology, QuickBooks supports not-for-profit programme Code First: Girls, which offers a range of free coding courses to young women in the UK. Skubick adds:

Programmes like these are vital in normalising coding and tech skills amongst women from all backgrounds. Encouraging young people, and especially young women, into tech jobs builds diversity in the industry. Diversity improves and augments technological developments across the board, as experts with a range of different backgrounds and skills will be able to bring new creative thinking, and design products and services that meet the needs of all users. It’s essential that we all constantly challenge ourselves to seek out new ways to break down the gender skills gap.

The key here is for companies to see a genuine business case for investing their time and resources in projects that help develop digital skills. Yes, coding clubs are a great opportunity to show young people why digital skills are important. But as Claire Vyvyan, senior VP and general manager for the Commercial Business in the UK and Ireland for Dell EMC, points out:

It’s worth saying that while of course encouraging young people to consider technology as a career is in itself a worthwhile investment, it is also a critical investment for our company and the UK as a whole as we’re not seeing the talent we need currently to fuel our growth. We must use our own resources to create those skills and an interest in technology.

Dell has various IT skills schemes in place, including STEMAspire, which pairs undergraduate students with personal mentors, advising them how to bridge the gap between higher education and a professional career in technology. Vyvyan says:

For young women, it provides exposure to the technology industry and shows just how inclusive and diverse it can be.

Code clubs

Barbara Schretter, Senior Data Scientist at Celonis, is another firm believer in companies running coding clubs and IT training schemes, to tackle the ever-increasing need for technology experts. She explains:

The sooner kids start with coding, the better it is for their future career. Even if they don’t program on their own, to have a basic understanding of coding can’t do any harm. Having companies involved in such projects might also help kids get excited about building their own scripts or solving various problems through scripting.

However, Sheridan Ash, women in tech leader at PwC, cautioned against inundating schools with too many well-intended tech skills initiatives. She says:

They often don’t know if what they’re being offered is best practice, they are often extra-curricular which means more work for teachers, so the take-up is often low, and they also don’t tend to address the gender diversity issues, so it’s still mostly boys sitting in the room.

Ash set up the Tech She Can Charter last year as a way of bringing companies together to collaborate on tackling the root cause of too few women in technology roles. Over 90 organisations have committed to delivering on the initiatives, including influencing policy at government level, creating and distributing female-friendly technology lessons for school children (Tech We Can), and an image overhaul for technology careers. She adds:

We have a major tech skills shortage in this country. But imagine if you had equal numbers of women in tech as men to help address that problem. There are many great initiatives out there, so my advice would be to join forces with others. It’s only through better collaboration on targeted initiatives - that schools and parents know are proven and best practice - that we’ll create long term and meaningful change.

Schretter is a prime example of why it pays to foster an enthusiasm for STEM at an early age. As a child, she loved maths and problem solving, which led her to study Technical Mathematics at university, including a machine-learning project with Austrian company Swarovski. She joined Celonis straight after finishing her Maths masters, and during her 1.5 years working in the industry, she has become very aware of the gender imbalance. Schretter says:

When meeting people from other companies, I am generally talking to men. I also rarely see women in our clients’ IT departments and even more rarely are those women my age or similar.

Schretter believes to attract more young girls to technology careers, they need to see more like-minded females working in the industry to inspire and encourage them. To that end, she spends her spare time talking to lots of young women and girls about her role. She adds:

I tell them about how fascinating it can be to be part of this industry and show them that there is a lot of potential for them in this field, as well as different routes to getting into the industry.

The women featured in our earlier International Womens Day article on relatable role models are almost all working in their current jobs thanks to technology being normalised for them at a very early age. These include Billie Simmons, a technical associate with Barclays Techstars, who joined the industry based on a very early love for technology and went on to complete a computing course at Flatiron School. She says:

I’ve always been fascinated by the limitless potential of technology, and have been involved most of my life in all areas related to it; from building personal-interest web sites when I was 11 to running launch events and assisting in marketing for fintech startups. But I only felt truly part of the industry after graduating from Flatiron School and becoming a software engineer.

My take

I’ve spent almost 20 years covering IT skills and women in tech, and finally got round to taking on-board some of my own advice on this topic last year. I set up a code club at Wanstead Church School, the East London primary school my two daughters attend, and 60 children aged five to 11 now attend a weekly club.

While this club is open to all, I spent a lot of time encouraging female students to sign up as my main objective was getting more girls into tech. This means we’ve been able to avoid the situation as outlined above by Ash, where coding clubs are dominated by boys - currently, 40% of attendees are girls, a much higher proportion than seen across the IT workplace and other computing courses.

The school code club took a while to organise, but the effort has been very worthwhile. It’s great seeing the children so enthused about being sat at a PC for an hour each week, building their own Scratch games or starting to try out JavaScript.

Schretter and Simmons are perfect examples of why it’s vital to target girls at an early age. The more companies that support schemes like Tech She Can, or tech professionals who spend time engaging with young people about what it’s like to work in tech or volunteering at a local code club, the more likely we are to see more women joining the industry and a decrease in the IT skills gap.